Dementia and Alcohol: What’s the Connection?

Posted by: The Bristal

Alzheimer’s & Alcohol Caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia often ponder the possible connection between alcohol and memory loss. Does drinking hasten or lessen cognitive decline? Is it a question of drinking in excess or moderation? Does it matter what types of alcoholic beverages are consumed? Or is it just safer for folks facing memory decline to avoid consuming alcohol altogether?

There are many questions to consider, and these, above, are among the most obvious; however, significant research has been conducted on the subject that could help us navigate this important issue of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and alcohol consumption.

First and foremost, it’s vital to remember the following two things. One, research is used to determine general population benchmarks and should never be used, in and of itself, as a reason to increase or decrease specific behavior — particularly when given the fact that research is usually ongoing, and that multiple studies of any one issue, at any given time, and from multiple and distinct investigative bodies, often result in opposing findings. Two, every individual is unique, with medical histories particular to them, and our bodies react physiologically differently to specific types of stimuli, especially in relation to other health issues that may be present. With these and other factors in mind, it is always advised to consult with one’s individual healthcare provider in determining the potential health risks or rewards regarding people diagnosed with memory loss who choose to drink.

For perspective, let’s briefly look at two points of reference.

Does drinking hasten or lessen cognitive decline?
According to an article published online by David J. Hanson, Ph.D., posted in association with Potsdam University, a report that aggregates multiple global studies conducted on the issue and involving subjects who are both aged and aging: “Scientific medical research has demonstrated that the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages (beer, wine and spirits) reduces the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.” While Hanson’s summary of studies goes onto suggest that, in fact, “drinking alcohol in moderation is one of the strategies that can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in later life,” we must remember to be cautious in all things relating to senior living, and always consult with our physicians.

Is it, then, a matter of drinking to excess?
According to information posted on the Alzheimer’s Society Web site in the United Kingdom, which has conducted extensive research in this area, “People who drink excessive amounts of alcohol over a long period of time increase their risk of developing a dementia-like condition with symptoms including loss of short-term memory.” The Society goes onto stress that “drinking above recommended levels of alcohol significantly increases the risk of developing dementias such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. However, research suggests that light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol may protect the brain against dementia and keep the heart and vascular system healthy.”

It would appear, from at least this brief exploration, that moderation seems to be the key. Whether drinking before or after a diagnosis of memory decline, light-to-moderate drinking might not only stave off memory loss, but has also been seen to improve memory function, even later in life. Conversely, most studies appear to agree that alcohol abuse — whether before or after diagnosis — generally leads to memory decline.

Hanson’s report summarizes it this way: “Alcohol might lead to better mental function by improving cardiovascular health, in turn leading to better blood circulation in the brain. It might also have a beneficial effect on the neurotransmitters or chemical messengers in the brain.”

While certainly an interesting and perhaps even unexpected conclusion, we again stress the importance of being prudent as well as the need to check first with our healthcare professionals.

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