Alcohol consumption, in moderation, has been associated with positive health benefits; however binge drinking can have a significant negative impact on your mental health and performance according to recent research. Two studies were recently presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver which found that moderate alcohol consumption later in life, heavier alcohol consumption earlier in life and binge drinking later in life increases the risk of declined cognitive performance – including memory loss and forgetfulness which are all characteristics found in people suffering from dementia.
The researchers in the first study, including Tina Hoang, MSPH, of NCIRE/The Veterans Health Research Institute, San Francisco and the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues followed more than 1,300 women aged 65 and over for a period of 20 years. They looked at the frequency of current and past drinking including alcohol consumption at the beginning, mid-point (years 6 and 8 ) and end point (years 10 and 16) of the study. The participants were assessed for cognitive impairments (decreased memory, forgetfulness, decreased mental performance, etc.) at the end of the study. The results showed that women who reported more drinking in the past compared to at the beginning of the study had a 30% increased risk of cognitive performance decline. Participants who drank moderately (7-14 drinks per week) in the later phases of the study were approximately 60% more likely to develop cognitive impairment. Women who changed from non-drinkers to drinkers over the course of the study increased their risk of developing cognitive impairment by 200%. The researchers concluded that alcohol intake in late life may not be beneficial in older women.
The second study conducted by Dr. Iain Lang of Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Exeter, UK. and colleagues studied over 5,000 participants aged 65 and over for a period of eight years to determine the effect that binge drinking has on mood and cognition. Binge drinking occurs when an individual who does not regularly consume alcohol consumes multiple drinks on one occasion. For this study, binge drinking was considered to be having 4 or more drinks in one sitting. The results showed that participants that reported binge drinking once per month were 62% more likely to be in the group experiencing the highest decline in cognitive performance and were 27% more likely to be in the group experiencing the highest level of memory decline. Participants who reported binge drinking two or more times per month were 147% more likely to be in the group experiencing the highest decline in cognitive performance and were 149% more likely to be in the group experiencing the highest level of memory decline. The findings from this study show that binge drinking is not just a problem in adolescents and younger adults as many people believe. This research shows that cognitive performance and memory are significantly impacted by binge drinking in the older adult population and needs to be addressed appropriately by healthcare practitioners.
Forgetfulness should not be looked at as part of the normal aging process; the findings from both of these studies suggest that if doctors start to notice signs of dementia such as memory loss, forgetfulness and decreased cognitive performance in their elderly patients, they should question alcohol use and changes in alcohol use over the lifespan. Once this is determined, proper treatment and possible support groups may help patients to abstain from alcohol consumption which will help to preserve their memory and cognitive performance.
These two studies provide insight into the effect that drinking has on the brains performance; however, additional research is needed to determine the mechanism by which the brain is affected by alcohol, especially in fragile elderly population.