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Alcohol Harms Thinking in Older Adults, Researchers Say

July 18, 2012

Alcohol Harms Thinking in Older Adults, Researchers Say

The study also showed that women who consumed seven to 14 drinks a week toward the end of the study were about 60 percent more likely to develop cognitive impairment. Photographer: Phil Ashley/Stone+/Getty Images

Certain types of alcohol use after age 65 may affect memory and thinking, according to two studies that raise new questions about earlier research that suggested drinking may stymie cognitive decline.

People 65 and older who regularly consumed four or more alcoholic beverages at a time, a situation described in the study as binge-drinking, were more likely to have the highest drop-off in brain function and the most memory decline, according to one result. A second study reported that women who indulged heavily early in life or were moderate drinkers after 65 were more likely to have cognitive impairment.

Drinking alcohol had been thought to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in some older people, the Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement. Today’s reports, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, suggest more research is needed.

“It’s clear that the pattern of drinking is important, that increasing alcohol consumption even to moderate levels may not be a good idea, and that there is a lot we don’t know about this topic,” said Iain Lang, lead author of the binge-drinking study and a senior lecturer in public health at the University of Exeter’s Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in the U.K. “Older adults should be cautious.”

New research should be done to look at the effects of alcohol consumption, including how binge drinking at younger ages may affect people later in life, Lang wrote in an e-mail.

Alzheimer’s Victims

About 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, and by 2050 that number is expected to grow to as many as 16 million, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The number of people worldwide with the condition is expected to swell to 115 million by 2050.

Lang and other researchers analyzed data from 5,075 people ages 65 and older who were part of the U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Data was collected in 2002 and participants were followed for eight years.

In the study, 167 men and 47 women reported binge drinking once a month and 86 men and 15 women said they engaged in binge drinking on average twice a month.

The research found that those who reported binge drinking once a month were 62 percent more likely than those who didn’t to be in the group with the greatest decline in cognitive function and 27 percent more likely to be in the group with the greatest memory drop-off. For those who engaged in the heavy drinking twice a month, they were 147 percent more likely to be in the group with the greatest cognitive decline and 149 percent more likely to be in the group with the greatest memory loss, the study showed.

Binge Drinking

Today’s study is the first to look at binge drinking in older adults, Lang said.

“Binge drinking, in particular, may pose risks to health later in life that have not previously been identified,” he said. “Physicians or others who advise patients about their levels of alcohol consumption should be aware that it’s not only how much people drink but how they drink that may be important in relation to health.”

In the other study, researchers looked at 1,306 women at least 65 years old who were followed for 20 years. At the start of the study, 41 percent didn’t drink, 50 percent were considered light drinkers having zero to seven drinks per week and 9 percent were considered moderate drinkers, having seven to 14 drinks a week.

Drinking Habits

They found that those who drank more when they were younger then at the start of the study were at a 30 percent increased risk of developing cognitive impairment, while women who started drinking during the trial had a 200 percent increased risk of cognitive impairment. The study also showed that women who consumed seven to 14 drinks a week toward the end of the study were about 60 percent more likely to develop cognitive impairment.

“These findings suggest that alcohol use in late-life may not be beneficial for cognitive function in older women,” said Tina Hoang, the lead study author and clinical research coordinator at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center, in a statement. “It may be that the brains of oldest old adults are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, but it is also possible that factors associated with changing alcohol use related to coping or loss could be involved. Clinicians should carefully assess their older patients for both how much they drink and any changes in patterns of alcohol use.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at nostrow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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