Middle-aged wine lovers might be helping out their future selves, a new study on alcohol and dementia suggests. Published this month in the BMJ, the study indicates a link between moderate drinking during midlife and a lower chance of developing dementia later on.
The findings are based on data from the Whitehall II study, an ongoing project tracking the health of British civil servants that were between the ages of 35 and 55 in 1985 (when the project began). For the new study, a team of French and British researchers gathered 23 years' worth of follow-up data on 9,087 Whitehall II participants, including hospital records and self-reported levels of alcohol consumption.
The researchers classified participants who had fully abstained from alcohol, those who stopped drinking early in the study and those who infrequently drank during the study period as "abstainers." Those who regularly drank were split into two additional groups: those who drank between 1 and 14 units of alcohol per week (the United Kingdom's recommended intake for both men and women) and those who drank above that rate. (In this case, one unit is equivalent to 10 milliliters of pure alcohol, or a bit more than half of a standard 5-ounce glass of wine.)
Based on a total of 397 hospital-reported cases of dementia, the researchers found that the group that abstained from alcohol and the group that drank in excess of 14 units per week were both shown to be at a higher risk of developing dementia than participants who drank between 1 and 14 units. Additionally, among those who drank more than 14 units per week, every seven additional drinks per week increased dementia risk by 17 percent.
The study's authors point out that the underlying causes for the increased risk are likely different for each of the two higher-risk groups. Abstainers, for example, were shown to have a higher prevalence of cardiometabolic disease (stroke, coronary heart disease, atrial fibrillation, heart failure and diabetes), which the study's text explains could contribute to dementia development. The researchers also found that a history of hospital admission for alcohol-related diseases was associated with a four-times higher risk of dementia, thus supporting the idea that overconsumption confers a higher risk.
While the study was mainly focused on alcohol consumption overall, the authors noted an interesting pattern among the different types of beverages. Participants in the 1- to 14-units-per-week group were more likely to drink wine, while those who consumed more than 14 units per week drank more beer.
The researchers also acknowledge some of the study's shortcomings. "A key limitation, as in other observational studies, is the measurement of alcohol consumption using self reports," the study's text reads, noting the possibility of reporting biases.
Another major limitation of this study is the way drinkers and abstainers were categorized. Because participants only began recording their consumption habits during midlife, it lacks information on how much they drank in their earlier years; these patterns could have had an effect on whether they developed dementia later in life. Further, the broad use of the term "abstainers" to include those who occasionally drank may have further skewed results.
According to the World Health Association (WHO), roughly 47 million people worldwide are living with some form of dementia, including Alzheimer's and Huntington's disease. Though it is more common among the elderly, dementia— which includes symptoms such as memory loss, impaired judgment and problems with communication—is not considered a normal part of aging, and in some cases can lead to death.
"Given the number of people living with dementia is expected to triple by 2050 and the absence of a cure, prevention is key," the study's text reads, citing a report from the WHO. "We show that both long-term alcohol abstinence and excessive alcohol consumption may increase the risk of dementia."
As an observational study, no direct cause-and-effect link between drinking and dementia can be inferred. It does, however, add to the growing body of research surrounding the topic, and can provide more groundwork for future related studies.
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