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Excess drinking is already known to be a risk factor for dementia and other forms of brain damage. Moderate drinking has not been conclusively recognised to impact long term cognitive function, but a new study in the journal of Aging and Mental Health suggests that even mild alcohol use can have long term impacts on cognition. This research specifically examined middle aged and elderly people.
The impact of alcohol was not evenly distributed across all areas of the brain.
The study’s risky drinkers notably were less likely to have impaired verbal reasoning but did suffer from worse verbal working memory.
This meant that the ability to understand language wasn’t impacted, but the ability to form memories and learn was decreased.
The study’s lead author, Rahul Rao, concludes that more research will be needed as the effect found in his study was very small.
Several factors were present that were difficult to disentangle from alcohol consumption and that are known to have an impact on the development of Alzheimer’s.
Problem drinkers are more likely to smoke, which is also known to be a risk factor due to the toxic chemicals contained in cigarettes.
Mental health problems such as severe depression are also more prevalent among drinkers, which causes a decline in thinking and memory that increases the risk of dementia.
One study from 2015 even linked people’s risk of cognitive disease to their socioeconomic status from childhood to adulthood.
A systematic review by Alzheimer’s Disease International in 2014 concluded that binge drinking produced the greatest risk of developing dementia.
Long term alcohol consumption was linked to reduced volume of white matter, which transmits signals between different lobes of the brain.
They also saw an increased risk of developing short term memory disorders, such as Korsakoff’s Syndrome.
More broadly, alcohol has been linked as a causal factor for more than 200 diseases and injuries, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and liver complications.
While the impact of moderate alcohol consumption is still broadly unknown on the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s, you can still take steps to avoid problem drinking.
NHS advises to not drink more than 14 units a week, the equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or one bottle of wine.
Additionally, they recommend that you spread your alcohol consumption over multiple nights if you do drink to this limit.
Do not attempt to drink 14 units in a single night once per week, and do not increase the amount of alcohol you drink if it is currently below these levels.
Other risk factors for dementia include high blood pressure, lack of exercise and smoking.
In some cases it is unclear whether something is a risk factor or a symptom of dementia, such as poor sleep.
If you believe you have symptoms or are at risk of dementia, your GP will be able to provide advice on how to reduce your risk or to diagnose the condition.
A diagnosis will involve a mixture of tests examining different areas of cognition, as well as examination of family history and lifestyle.
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