Heavy drinking in middle age speeds cognitive decline, study finds
Middle-aged men who consume an average of more than 2½ alcoholic drinks per day accelerate the rate at which their memories decline by almost six years over a 10-year span, says a new study. And while a higher consumption of spirits such as vodka, gin, whiskey or scotch was linked to the fastest rates of mental decline in men, researchers saw little difference between the cognitive loss seen in heavy beer drinkers (who drank more than 2½ 12-ounce beers per day) and that seen in men who quaffed a half-bottle of wine or more per day.
Compared with men who drank no more than 1½ drinks per day on average (up to 19.9 grams of alcohol daily), those who daily drank 36 grams or more of alcohol during a 10-year stretch of their late 40s, 50s and early 60s experienced 2.4 more years of overall cognitive decline in the decade that followed.
Compared with lighter drinkers, middle-aged women who drank heavily -- defined as an average daily consumption exceeding about 1½ drinks per day -- suffered a speedier decline in their ability to plan, organize and focus, but not in their memory skills, the study found.
But women who had abstained from alcohol completely for a decade or more suffered the greatest loss of cognitive function of all groups in the following decade, the new research found. Compared with middle-aged women who drank no more than five drinks per week, on average, the middle-aged female abstainers experience a 50% greater loss of cognitive function in the second decade of the study.
Wonder where your alcohol consumption stands on the spectrum? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an extensive alcohol page online, and the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has compiled some enlightening statistics.
The new research, published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, is the first to measure the effect on cognitive aging of alcohol consumption among those who are not yet elderly. Past studies have focused on the cognitive effects of heavy drinking among the elderly -- a relative rarity. But the current study suggests there is a carryover effect from the drinking patterns a person establishes in middle age.
The findings come from a 20-year study that tracked the health behaviors and physical and mental health of more than 7,000 British civil servants whose annual salaries ranged from about $8,000 to $235,000. At three intervals between 1985 to 1999, researchers gathered a wide range of data on participants’ habits, including their average alcohol consumption. Starting in 1997, participants underwent tests of their verbal memory (how many of 20 one- and two-syllable words they could recall minutes after they were presented) and of their “executive function,” a complex group of mental skills that we use every day to plan, organize and make reasoned choices.
The British population of the “Whitehall study” had more than twice as many male participants as females. And, unlike heavy-drinking men in the study, women classified as heavy drinkers tended to hold high-status jobs. So researchers offered their modest findings on the effect of women’s drinking with caution. And they suggested that, since data was most likely to be missing from participants with lower cognitive scores, their findings linking heavy drinking to accelerated cognitive aging “might, if anything, be underestimates of the true associations.”
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