Problem Drinking in Middle Age Impairs Memory

Posted on December 17th, 2014

Problem Drinking in Middle Age Impairs MemoryMemory loss may seem like a natural part of aging, but there are many factors that make it worse. One of these is alcohol. A new study, conducted over 19 years, shows that if you engage in any problem drinking during middle age, your risk of serious memory problems later is doubled. This is not the first study to link drinking and memory problems, but along with other studies it illustrates just how damaging alcohol can be.

The recent study, which was conducted by researchers from the medical school of the University of Exeter in England, tracked more than 6,500 adults for up to 19 years. The adult participants were asked about drinking when they were between 51 and 61 years old. Researchers considered them to have engaged in problem drinking if they could answer yes to at least one of these questions:

  • Have you ever felt the need to cut down on drinking?
  • Have you ever felt ashamed or guilty about drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink in the morning to cure a hangover or to steady your nerves?
  • Have you ever felt annoyed when someone criticized your drinking habits?

These questions are considered to be a better way of gauging problem drinking than simply asking people how many drinks they consume. When asking about number of drinks directly, people often minimize their answers. Asking the above questions is a better way to determine if someone engages in problem drinking. According to researchers, these questions can accurately identify problem drinkers 70 percent of the time. They also wanted to emphasize other factors, like feelings about drinking.

The participants in the study took memory tests after answering the questions and then came back for similar memory tests every two years. Tests included challenges like recalling a list of 10 simple words, counting back from 20, or recalling the names of the president and vice president. Everyone involved did worse on the memory quizzes as time passed and they aged. However, those with problem drinking behaviors saw significantly greater memory declines.

This recent study adds to the literature regarding a link between alcohol and memory loss. Other studies have confirmed that heavy drinking, such as that engaged in by true alcoholics, causes brain damage that is permanent. It can lead to a condition known as alcohol-related dementia, also called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

What is important and troubling about the most recent research is that it may mean that moderate drinking can increase memory loss later in life. It may not just be the hard drinking and alcohol dependence that destroys memory. The study used questions that could identify problem drinking in participants, but answering yes to any of them does not make a study volunteer an alcoholic or a heavy drinker. A person who mostly drinks within the recommended moderate drinking limits of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men could still answer yes to the questions.

It is possible to engage in problem drinking behaviors and still mostly stay within these recommended limits. And yet, answering yes to any of the problem drinking questions was linked to significant memory loss later in life. What does this mean for the average drinker? That remains to be seen after more research is conducted. It certainly makes it clear that you should not go over the recommended limits. It also indicates that if you can answer yes to any of the questions, you need to assess your drinking habits. It may be time to make some changes.

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