Alcohol Consumption Now Linked to Early Onset Dementia and Other Cognitive Decline
The largest study of its kind has found that alcohol use is the biggest risk factor for all types of dementia, especially early-onset dementia. The findings suggest Americans should drastically reduce or eliminate their alcohol consumption to preserve cognitive function as late into life as possible.
What the Findings Show
A group of researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that alcohol abuse is the single most important preventable risk factor in the onset of all types of dementia, most notably early-onset dementia. The researchers reached this conclusion after studying the health data of over one million adults diagnosed with dementia in France.
Within the study group of dementia patients in France, the researchers found 57,000 patients diagnosed with early-onset dementia (meaning they developed dementia before age 65). Over half of that group (57%) were chronic, heavy drinkers.
“The findings indicate that heavy drinking and alcohol use disorders are the most important risk factors for dementia, especially for those types of dementia which start before age 65, and which lead to premature deaths.”
The logical conclusion? Consuming more than three alcoholic beverages per day increases an individual’s risk for early-onset dementia. Commenting on the findings, study co-author and Director of the CAMH Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, Dr. Jürgen Rehm, gave a clear warning. “The findings indicate that heavy drinking and alcohol use disorders are the most important risk factors for dementia, especially for those types of dementia which start before age 65, and which lead to premature deaths. Alcohol-induced brain damage and dementia are preventable, and known-effective preventive and policy measures can make a dent in premature dementia deaths.” Dr. Rehm pointed out that untreated alcohol addiction typically shortens lifespan by more than 20 years, with dementia being one of the leading causes of death for such individuals.
Critically, the study authors noted that only the most severe cases of alcohol addiction (ones involving hospitalization) were included. The authors suggested that because of the ongoing stigma associated with discussing alcohol consumption and misuse, the association between heavy alcohol consumption and dementia might be stronger than reported.
The Harm of Early-Onset Dementia
Early-onset dementia is defined simply as dementia that develops in an individual under the age of 65. Critical risk factors for early-onset dementia include alcohol abuse, a lack of exercise and poor diet, poor cardiovascular health, depression, diabetes, smoking, air pollution, and head trauma.
Dementia is associated with life-changing symptoms affecting memory, thinking, cognitive function, communication, and social abilities. Early-onset dementia is harmful because it means an adult is experiencing some of the most pronounced harms associated with old age, but they’re experiencing them at a relatively young age. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who struggle with dementia report:
- Difficulty with planning and organizing day-to-day tasks
- Difficulty with reasoning, problem-solving, or conveying even slightly complex concepts
- Difficulty in communicating or finding words to communicate and express concepts
- Difficulty with visual and locational abilities, most often manifested by getting lost while driving
- Memory loss, which is often first noticed and reported by someone else
- Personality changes
- Inappropriate behavior
- Difficulty with physical coordination and basic motor function
- Confusion and disorientation
- Difficulty in handling thinking-related tasks
The above is not a complete list of harms people face when they have early-onset dementia. Dementia is an illness that affects everyone differently, with a severe decline in cognitive, communication, and memory abilities being the most obvious indicators of the ailment.
Alcohol and the Body, an Unhealthy Mix
Dementia is by no means the only harmful result of misusing alcohol. Increasingly, alcohol misuse is becoming one of the leading causes of a seemingly endless list of diseases, illnesses, and harmful health issues. Alcohol is even becoming a leading cause of death.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol affects:
- The Brain. Alcohol consumption interferes with the brain’s communication pathways. When people drink alcohol often, the substance can permanently affect how the brain looks and works.
- The Heart. Alcohol has various harmful effects on the heart, responsible for several long-term health conditions like cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure.
- The Liver. Drinking alcohol heavily affects the liver, causing problems like steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
- The Pancreas. People who drink to excess may experience a condition of the pancreas in which the pancreas produces toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas.
- Cancer Diagnosis. Alcohol consumption has now been connected to several types of cancers. Quoting the National Cancer Institute’s report on alcohol and cancer, “The evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. Even those who have no more than one drink per day and people who binge drink (those who consume 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men in one sitting) have a modestly increased risk of some cancers. Based on data from 2009, an estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol related.”
- Finally, alcohol consumption has been linked to a decline in the body’s immune function, making people who drink excessively more likely to become ill. People who drink often are more liable to contract infectious diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis because drinking excessively, even just once, inhibits the body’s ability to ward off infections for up to 24 hours after drinking.
Alcohol Addiction Affects Millions of Americans. If You Know One of Those Individuals, Make Sure They Get Help.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report that about 25% of American adults drink excessively at least once per month and that 14.5 million American adults meet the criteria for alcohol addiction. Further, another 414,000 American youths meet the criteria for alcohol addiction.
Given the recent findings connecting alcohol abuse to dementia and the already-known list of health harm that results from alcohol consumption, it has never been more clear that those who struggle with an alcohol addiction must get help from a residential alcohol rehab center as soon as possible.
If you know someone struggling with alcohol addiction, please do everything you can to get them help. Please don’t wait until it is too late and they become just another statistic.
- TheLancet. “Contribution of alcohol use disorders to the burden of dementia in France 2008–13: a nationwide retrospective cohort study.” The Lancet, 2018. thelancet.com
- ScienceDaily. “Largest study of its kind finds alcohol use biggest risk factor for dementia.” Science Daily, 2018. sciencedaily.com
- MayoClinic. “Dementia.” Mayo Clinic, 2023. mayoclinic.org
- NIAAA. “Alcohol's Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022. niaaa.nih.gov
- NCI. “Alcohol and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute, 2023. cancer.gov
- NIAAA. “Alcohol Use in the United States.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. niaaa.nih.gov