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A New Study Shows that Abstaining from Alcohol & Heavy Drinking can Increase Dementia Risk

Just as it is in most situations in life, maintaining balance seems to be the key to long-term brain health, particularly when it comes to alcohol consumption.  A new study, published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ),  discovered that those who drank too much alcohol, as well as people who didn’t drink alcohol at all, were at higher risk of developing dementia. 

The medical research seems to be all over the map these days,  when it comes to alcohol intake and brain health.  Some studies have shown evidence pointing to the possibility that moderate drinking may lend itself to brain health; still, other research studies discovered that even small amounts of alcohol—8 drinks per week—may be linked with brain shrinkage and cognitive decline.

But, according to a more recent study, published in the BMJ in August of 2018, there are several factors that impact the consumption of alcohol and long-term brain health.

The New BMJ Study

The study, conducted by researchers at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and from UCL in the UK, involved 9,087 British civil servants, aged 35 to 55 who participated in a previous study, called the Whitewall II Study.  The Whitewall study examined the impact of behavioral, biological, and social factors on long-term health.  The study participants were evaluated on their alcohol use, at regular intervals—over a 50-year time-span. 

The link between the development of dementia in early old age, and alcohol consumption, in midlife, was examined by the researchers. In addition to observing the connection between drinking alcohol and dementia, the researchers also observed the role that cardiometabolic diseases played in the development of dementia. 

Cardiometabolic diseases are a combination of metabolic dysfunctions characterized by insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, dyslipidemia (abnormal levels of cholesterol and triglycerides), high blood pressure, and an excess of abdominal fat.

Of the 9,087 cases, scientists in the study discovered that 397 developed dementia at an average age of 76.

Here are the highlights of the study findings:

    Those who abstain from alcohol during middle age were at an increased risk of developing dementia

      People who consumed over 14 units (a large glass of wine has 3 units of alcohol) per week during middle age were at an increased risk of dementia.

        In those who abstained from alcohol,  some of the increased risk of dementia was due to an increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases.

          Among those drinking more than 14 units a week of alcohol, every 7 units per week increase in alcohol consumption was linked with a 17% increase in dementia risk.

            Study participants with a history of being hospitalized for alcoholism, or for alcohol related disease (such as liver failure), had a 4 times greater risk of dementia.


            According to the study researchers, the evidence regarding alcohol consumption and dementia risk is far from conclusive, and the reasons for the conflicting findings is unclear.  Perhaps a person’s lifetime drinking patterns, or hereditary factors come in to play. But, in the meantime, the recent research has prompted the UK to establish a recommended amount of alcohol consumption of no more than 14 units per week. That equals approximately 4 large glasses of 12% alcohol content, red wine, or no more than 7 medium glasses of wine per week. 

            Note-you can calculate how many units there are in any drink by multiplying the total volume of a drink (in ml) by its alcohol by volume (ABV)—measured as a percentage—then dividing the result by 1,000.

            Learn more about recent medical research studies related to brain health and Alzhiemer’s disease at Cogntive Vitality.

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