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Alcohol, Alzheimer’s Link No Cause for Cheer

August 30, 2012
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Light to moderate alcohol consumption has generally been considered to have some health benefits, including possibly reducing the risk of cognitive decline. 

However, two studies reported recently at the Alzheimer’s Association international conference suggest that moderate alcohol use and binge drinking in late life, as well as heavier use earlier in life,increase risk of cognitive decline.

“The many dangers of misuse of alcohol, and some of its possible benefits, have been widely reported, and there needs to be further clarification by the scientific community,” said William Thies, the Alzheimer’s Association chief medical and scientific officer. 

“Certainly, no one should start drinking in order to reduce Alzheimer’s risk, as these two new reports attest.”

Thies continued: “We need to know more about what factors actually raise and lower risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. To do that, we need longer-term studies in larger and more diverse populations, and we need more research funding to make that happen.

“We have learned incredible amounts about heart disease and stroke risk from long-term research like the Framingham Study — we have solidly proven lifestyle risk factors that people can act on every day. Alzheimer’s now needs its version of that research,” Thies said.

The disease is a costly one: “In 2050, care for people with Alzheimer’s will cost the U.S. more than $1 trillion, creating an enormous strain on the health care system, families and budgets.

“Recognizing this growing crisis, the first-ever U.S. national plan to address Alzheimer’s was unveiled in May. Now this plan must be swiftly and effectively implemented.”

Whether moderate alcohol consumption has an impact on cognitive impairment in late life is an unsettled question, with some studies suggesting a protective effect. To date, few studies have examined patterns of alcohol consumption over time in relation to cognitive status, expecially in very late life.

Tina Hoang 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 older for 20 years. They measured frequency of current and past alcohol use at the beginning, midpoint (years 6 and 8) and late phases (years 10 and 16) of the study. 

The researchers assessed participants at the end of the study for mild cognitive impairment and dementia. At baseline, 40.6 percent were non-drinkers, 50.4 percent light drinkers (0 to 7 drinks per week), and 9 percent moderate (7 to 14 drinks). 

The scientists found that women who reported drinking more in the past than at the beginning of the study were at 30 percent increased risk of developing cognitive impairment while moderate drinkers at midpoint had similar risk of cognitive impairment to non-drinkers; however, moderate drinkers in the late phase of the study were roughly 60 percent more likely to develop cognitive impairment. 

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