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Middle-aged men who drink daily risk losing years of memory

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds heavy-drinking men lose up to 6 years of memory.

If you’re a middle-aged man who drinks more than 2.5 alcoholic beverages per day, you may be putting yourself at risk of losing up to six years of your memory, according to a British study published in the journal Neurology.

Researchers for the study did acknowledge that moderate drinking could actually be good for you. However, they found that men who drank more heavily had significant and quantifiable memory loss and other cognitive impairments that essentially aged their brains by many years.

The study involved 7,513 alcohol-drinking participants. The researchers tracked them over time to see if their drinking – whether moderate or heavy – affected their cognitive functioning over a period of 12 years.

Although there have been similar studies in the past, this newest one is among the first to explore the effects of drinking on memory and cognitive skills over time.

Starting in 1997, the researchers examined the participants every 4 years for any changes in their brain. They then repeated the process at three intervals until testing ended in 2009.

As part of these examinations, the participants were asked questions regarding their drinking habits, as well as a number of other questions related to their overall health. In 2009, the participants had their final examinations. At that time, their ages were between 55 and 80.

The results of the study revealed that male drinkers who consumed just over 2.5 drinks each day, ended up with a significant decline in their ability to remember things from years past. They also experienced a decline in processing information and performance of executive tasks. Moderate drinkers, however, did not have these same declines.

As it pertains to memory specifically, the researchers found that men who drank more than 2.5 alcoholic beverages each day lost almost 6 years of memory. For example, if a participant was a 65-year old man who drank that much per day, his memory at 65 years would be like that of a man aged 71. Such men also “aged” their brains with respect to cognitive abilities by an average loss of one-and-a-half years.

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The researchers said that these findings held up, even after they added controls to account for other factors that could cause someone to imbibe, such as depression and other health problems that could also have a negative impact on the functioning of the brain and memory.

There were also women who participated in the study, but they did not experience the same loss of memory and cognitive decline as the men. By the same token, there were some female participants who had quit drinking for a decade, and they did experience a more rapid cognitive deterioration, compared with the moderate women drinkers.

Nevertheless, Dr. Meir Stampfer, a medical professor at Harvard Medical School who also has studied mental deterioration in those who consume alcohol, warns people to exercise caution before reaching any conclusions pertaining to differences between male and female drinkers.

Meanwhile, there was at least one silver cloud in the study that may provide relief for moderate drinkers:

The study did not find any major difference in memory loss or cognitive functioning between those who abstained completely from alcohol and those who drank moderately. Indeed, female women who drank moderately actually had greater cognitive skills than women who totally abstained from alcohol.

Dr. Stampfer agrees that moderate drinking can be beneficial, as studies have shown that it can boost heart health and circulation. As he pointed out, heart disease and cognitive function share common risk factors. For example, those who have heart attacks or strokes, often suffer from cognitive deterioration as a result of decreased blood flow to the brain.

Stampfer explained that moderate drinking is therefore beneficial for both the brain and the cardiovascular system because “we know there is a strong relationship there.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate drinking for women is 1 drink per day. For men, it is up to 2 drinks per day.

SOURCE: Neurology, Alcohol consumption and cognitive decline in early old age, by Séverine Sabia, Alexis Elbaz, Annie Britton, et al. Published online January 15, 2014.