Think Twice Before You ‘Drink to’ This Alcohol Study
“Moderate, Heavy Drinkers More Likely to Reach Age 85 Without Dementia,” one headline proclaims.
“People Who Drink Alcohol Every Day Less Likely to Get Dementia,” reads another.
If only it were that simple.
The news reports come in the wake of a study out of UC San Diego that says older people who drink alcohol, particularly wine, have “greater chances of remaining cognitively healthy into older age,” senior author Linda McEvoy, PhD, associate professor at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, said in a news release.
Here’s the rub. The findings apply to only white, middle- to upper-class individuals — the only population group that was studied. What’s more, the researchers warn that they are not suggesting that the consumption of alcohol alone is responsible for “increased longevity and cognitive health.”
The study found only a link between moderate drinking and mental sharpness, not a cause-and-effect association. (Heavy drinking over a long period, however, is known to cause dementia.) Why did the researchers give themselves this wiggle room? Because, they say, other factors are at play: People who drink a moderate amount of wine tend to have higher incomes and education levels, are less likely to smoke, have a lower rate of mental illness than the general population and greater access to health care.
Conflicting Research on Health Effects
The scientists note that there’s an ongoing debate over the effects of alcohol on cognitive health. Some studies suggest a protective effect that comes with moderate consumption, while others report a negative association.
Naturally, the researchers stressed that their data should not be seen as a recommendation for people to begin drinking or increase their alcohol consumption. (Moderate alcohol consumption was defined as one drink per day for women of any age and men 65+, and two drinks per day for men under age 65.) People who have difficulty controlling how much they drink and those who take medications should avoid alcohol altogether.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, alcohol and prescription drug abuse affects about 17% of Americans 65 and older and more than half of all hospitalizations due to mixing the two were people in this age group. And these numbers only look to get worse as the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that this demographic will be the fastest-growing age group over the next 25 years.
Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
It’s hard to know what to make of the UC San Diego study. But decades of research tell us that binge drinking and heavy drinking affect you in many ways. Let’s look at alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain over which there is no disagreement.
- Moderate drinking — Even just one or two drinks (depending on your weight and how recently you’ve eaten) can lead to slurred speech, stumbling, reduced reaction times and memory problems. People often drink because they think it will help them in difficult situations and with emotions like anxiety, but alcohol can in fact increase anxiety. Alcohol also disrupts sleep, which is especially problematic for older people, who naturally sleep less in their golden years.
- Binge drinking — Five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in about a two-hour time span constitutes binge drinking, which can cause brain effects including blackouts, high blood pressure, the inability to form memories and learning problems.
- Long-term heavy drinking — Serious mental health issues such as depression, personality disorders, schizophrenia and alcoholism are seen in this level of alcohol misuse. Another condition found among people who drink excessively is Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome, a serious brain disorder characterized by vision issues, confusion and psychosis. Long-term drinking has also been shown to lead to brain shrinkage. A study found that heavy drinkers were more likely to have a shrunken hippocampus, an area of the brain that is key to learning and memory. Even moderate drinkers showed a loss in this area.
If you have difficulty controlling your drinking or know someone who does, look into treatment. Through the combination of traditional psychotherapy, holistic treatments, 12-step groups and medications, problem drinkers can win the battle with their cravings and return to a full, active lifestyle.