Study Links Late-Life Memory Problems to Heavy Drinkers

According to a study that monitored 6,500 Americans for two decades, people who report drinking problems in their past are more than twice as likely to develop memory problems later in life.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in England distinguished those with a history of drinking problems by asking four questions. If a person answered “yes” to two of the following, they were grouped among those with a history of drinking problems: Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking? Have people ever annoyed you by criticizing your drinking? Have you ever felt guilty about drinking? Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning?

Participants were initially screened in their 50s and 60s, then had follow-up cognitive assessments every two years from 1996 to 2010. The 6,500 Americans followed in the study were all born between 1931 and 1941.

Just 16% of the participants reported a drinking problem in their past. When given a word-recall test, people in that group were far more likely to show memory problems, according to the findings published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Researchers say that the memory loss is likely caused by the shrinking of certain matter in the brain due to excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol also inhibits the brain’s absorption of necessary vitamins. This reaction is not the same as what happens to a brain affected by Alzheimer’s Disease.

Beyond this particular study, memory expert P. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University suggests that alcohol-related cognitive damage may be reversible. “One in three cases of cognitive impairment in late life are potentially preventable with regular exercise, cutting down on drinking, losing unwanted pounds, getting regular sleep and giving up smoking,” said Doraiswamy.

So far, it is unclear whether it matters when, in a person’s life, the drinking problem occurred. Authors of the study note that this is just one part of the puzzle and we know relatively little about the consequences of early alcohol consumption.