Researchers in London have found men who drink heavily in middle age may have faster memory decline than moderate drinkers, light drinkers or non-drinkers. The 20-year-study, which examined data from 7,153 civil servants working in Whitehall, is published on Wednesday 15 January in the journal Neurology online.
A team of UCL researchers studied data from 5,054 men and 2,099 women who were enrolled in the Whitehall II study, a long-term health study that recruited people working as civil servants in the 1980s. Each participant was asked about their drinking habits on three occasions over 10 years. At the end of the first 10-year period, they were then asked to complete a series of cognitive tests, with these tests repeated again after five and 10 years. People in the study were aged between 44 and 69 at the time of the first cognitive test.
The results showed that in men, those who drank heavily – consuming on average more than 36 grams or roughly 4.5 units of alcohol per day – experienced a faster decline in memory, equivalent to an extra one and a half to six years’ decline compared to those who were moderate or light drinkers, or those who did not drink at all. However, no differences in memory or thinking skills were found among women.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“These latest results could serve as one more reason to stick to any New Year’s resolutions to cut back on alcohol. Observational studies such as this can be important for identifying factors that may influence the risk of memory decline or disease, but it’s difficult to pinpoint cause and effect with this type of research. The people in this study did not have dementia, but memory decline can be a precursor to dementia and understanding the risk factors for this decline could be important for preventing the condition. This large study has yielded useful results, although it’s not clear how far the findings from this group of civil servants can be generalised to the wider population.
“It’s crucial to continue investing in research if we are to understand how to keep our brains healthy as we age and prevent the diseases that cause dementia. In the meantime, the best evidence suggests that in addition to not drinking to excess we can lower the risk of dementia by eating a healthy, balanced diet, keeping an eye on our blood pressure and weight, and taking regular exercise.”