Even Moderate Drinking Harms Older Adults’ Memories

Posted on October 20th, 2014
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to a range of serious health problems, including disruption of memory. Public health guidelines for moderate levels of alcohol intake are specifically intended to reduce to the odds that any given person will experience alcohol-related harm. In a study published in September 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the University of Florida looked at the negative impact that even moderate alcohol consumption can have on older adults’ ability to use an essential form of memory called working memory.

Moderate Alcohol Consumption

There are two components to moderate drinking: the amount of alcohol you consume on a daily basis and the amount of alcohol you consume on a weekly basis. Men must limit their daily alcohol intake to no more than four standard drinks in order to stay within the widely recognized public health guidelines for moderate use. In addition, they must limit their total weekly consumption to no more than 14 standard drinks. Women don’t process alcohol as efficiently as men and common have lower body weights. This means that women have reduced daily intake limitations (no more than three standard drinks), as well as reduced weekly intake limitations (no more than seven standard drinks). Any man or woman who consistently maxes out his or her daily limits for moderate alcohol consumption can easily exceed his or her weekly limits for moderate consumption. In turn, people who exceed the gender-specific daily or weekly intake totals as infrequently as once a month have increased risks for developing diagnosable alcohol use disorder (the modern, collective term for alcohol abuse and alcoholism).

Alcohol and Memory

An ongoing pattern of excessive alcohol intake is associated with a number of significant memory-related issues. Examples of these issues include a reduced ability to absorb information, a reduced ability to recall the information stored in memory in the relatively distant past, a reduced ability to recall information stored in memory in the relatively recent past and higher chances of inaccurately remembering previous events. In addition, alcohol-related impairment can involve a reduced ability to use working memory. All humans rely on this form of memory to retain awareness of newly encountered information and stay properly oriented to reality while doing such things as carrying out instructions or following subject changes during conversations. Accurate working memory is also an essential precondition for executive function, a group of advanced mental skills that help provide such core abilities as decision-making, problem-solving and impulse control.

Impact on Older Adults

In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the University of Florida researchers used a series of tests conducted on a group of 90 people to help determine how low and moderate alcohol consumption affects the mental abilities of older adults. Thirty-nine of the participants were between the ages of 55 and 70; the remainder belonged to a comparison group of younger adults between the ages of 25 and 35. All of the people in both groups qualified as casual drinkers and had no history of excessive alcohol intake. Each individual received a small amount of alcohol, a moderate amount of alcohol or a placebo dose of a non-intoxicating beverage and subsequently completed tests designed to assess working memory and the ability to track visual information and switch from task to task.

The researchers concluded that the consumption of alcohol interferes with older adults’ ability to use their working memories; the degree of impairment becomes significant when alcohol intake reaches moderate levels. Young adults apparently do not experience a similar decline in their working memory skills after consuming alcohol in moderate amounts. The researchers also concluded that moderate alcohol intake interferes with older adults’ ability to keep track of visual information and shift their attention from task to task.

The study’s authors note that previous researchers had also concluded that moderate alcohol intake can damage older adults’ ability to shift attention while performing tasks and track visual information. However, their work adds to the established body of research by identifying the working memory-related deficits in older adults who consume alcohol even in moderate amounts. The authors call for additional research efforts to confirm the accuracy of their findings and further examine the damaging brain effects of moderate alcohol consumption in older individuals.

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