Alcohol and brain function in old age

Let’s get this out of the way at the start. It is clear that alcohol misuse is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality. As an example, binge drinking has been shown to lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

But what about lower level alcohol consumption?

Some previous studies have reported that low to moderate alcohol consumption show benefits to cognitive function. However, others have found no, minimal, or even adverse effects associated with alcohol consumption.

So what to believe?

Association studies are difficult to interpret correctly as most effects studied are multifactorial and vary over time. In particular, a one time measurement can easily be misleading as the time factor is disregarded.

To overcome this challenge, a study published in June 2020 by researchers from the University of Georgia used repeated measurements of health and lifestyle, including questions on drinking habits, in a group of almost 20,000 middle-aged and older participants over a ten-year period.

The participants had their cognitive function measured in a series of tests looking at their overall mental status, word recall and vocabulary. The test results were combined to form a total cognitive score.

And the good news – light to moderate drinking may preserve brain function in older age.

Compared to nondrinkers, those who had a drink or two a day tended to perform better on cognitive tests over time. The optimal amount of drinks per week was between 10 and 14 drinks.

Even when other important factors known to impact cognition such as age, smoking or education level were controlled for, they saw a pattern of light drinking associated with better cognitive function.

The debate will continue

The debate is clearly not over about potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. We have written about the balance of the good and bad of alcohol consumption before.

For a while it looked like the fact that regular, moderate alcohol consumption had been shown to promote heart health was settled. And then came another review of previously published research questioning this conclusion.

Several studies pointed to similar protective benefits of moderate alcohol consumption for brain health. And then a systematic review of existing literature on alcohol consumption concluded that there seemed to be no safe level of drinking alcohol.

Believe what you will, but at my age I will cling to the latest findings as it seems to be a solid design of the study.

4 thoughts on “Alcohol and brain function in old age

  1. Do these studies separate never-drinkers v non-drinkers as a result of prior alcohol problems, who make up a non insignificant portion of non-drinkers in many cultures?

    • I take your point Paul that is important. And yes the current study did ask participants about previous drinking. Further they looked at the starting point and progression of deteriorated cognitive function so would capture people already influenced by heavy drinking.

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