Every so often a piece of research is reported comes along which sets tongues wagging because it flies in the face of accepted wisdom. The latest study on drinking alcohol suggests that actually not drinking alcohol in middle age could increase the risk of dementia in later life.
The British Medical Journal has published the findings which directly challenge NHS advice which is categorical in recommending teetotalism to reduce and minimise the risk of dementia. It does however concur in part with the government’s advice that the weekly amount of alcohol could be reduced. It is worth noting thought that health advisors cannot recommend a ‘safe’ level because of the association of alcohol with cancer even if only a small amount of alcohol is drunk. The guidance from the UK chief medical officer states that men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. This is the equivalent of six pints of 4.0%ABV beer, or 7 glasses of wine at 11.5% ABV or 14 single shots of spirits (40% strength).
The latest study looked at over 9,000 British civil servants and their drinking habits in relation to the development of dementia. All the subjects were between ages 35 and 55 with the study starting in the mid-1980s until 1993 where the subjects were aged around 50. All were followed up over 23 years. The cases of dementia were noted from a variety of record services – mental health, hospital records and mortality records. Dementia was seen in 397 case.
It seems that those who never drink were around 50 per cent more likely to develop this degenerative brain condition compare to those who were just drinking moderate amounts. The risk of dementia appears to only start rising once the 14-unit threshold is exceeded.
The key facet was that abstainers in the long term and those who decreased their alcohol consumption demonstrated an increased risk. The drinkers who consumed over 14 units every week also had an increased risk of dementia and this rose the more alcohol was drunk. For every 7-unit rise per week increase, there was a 17 per cent rise in dementia risk.
Scanning the papers, The Guardian sought comments from those where dementia is a major concern. Dr Sara Imarisio who is head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK as quoted as saying:-
“As this study only looked at people’s drinking in midlife, we don’t know about their drinking habits earlier in adulthood, and it is possible that this may contribute to their later life dementia risk.
“People who completely abstain from alcohol may have a history of heavy drinking and this can make it difficult to interpret the links between drinking and health. Future research will need to examine drinking habits across a whole lifetime, and this will help to shed more light on the relationship between alcohol and dementia.”
Alcohol consumption and risk of dementia: a 23-year follow-up of the Whitehall II cohort study, www.bmj.com/content/362/bmj.k2927
Editorial: Relation between alcohol consumption in midlife and dementia in late life, www.bmj.com/content/362/bmj.k3164