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Could your alcohol consumption lead to dementia?

People love it when new research appears in the media with claims that a few drinks a week or a nice glass of red wine is better for our health than abstinence. Some research even says that light to moderate alcohol consumption is good for your cognitive health, but is this really the case?

This will be a question that researchers aim to get to the bottom of as one of 19 research grants handed out recently by Dementia Australia.

Dr Lousie Mewton and her colleagues at UNSW will be conducting a world first study of the relationship between alcohol use and dementia.

“What we do know is that alcohol use disorders or really chronic heavy alcohol use is strongly associated with dementia and cognitive decline,” Mewton tells Aged Care Insite.

“But really moderate alcohol use, or light to moderate alcohol use hasn’t received such attention.”

Mewton believes that previous research in this area – the ones that tell us that second glass of red is good for us – is flawed.

“There’s a lot of problems with that research. People who drink in light to moderate patterns also tend to have better education and have higher socioeconomic status. And we think it’s those things that are driving that positive relationship between alcohol use and cognition.

“So, we’re using fancy physical techniques to really get down, drill that down and have a look at whether or not light to moderate alcohol use is in fact detrimental,” she says.

One in seven Australians consume alcohol at levels placing them at lifetime risk of disease.

Mewton’s work is particularly important for our ageing population as studies show that 20 per cent of people aged over 60 in Australia consume alcohol in a pattern that puts them at risk. That’s five or more drinks on an occasion.

But what’s possibly even more worrying is approximately 12 per cent of adults aged over 60 drink in that pattern daily or almost daily. And that’s far more than any other age group.

The current government guidelines on alcohol consumption state that “to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day”.

Mewton hopes her research will be able to finesse these guidelines in relation to cognitive risk. This will also help to combat what Mewton sees as problematic drinking opatterns in our elder cohort.

“Most people continue drinking in the same pattern that they’ve drunk throughout their life. They might reduce or increase over the lifespan, so what we’re seeing is the baby boomer cohort was really the first cohort, especially among women, who drank in a more widespread, heavier fashion and more people were drinking in this heavier fashion. And so, they continue to drink in that pattern as they age.

“But the research says that about 30 per cent of older people who do drink in harmful ways is actually initiated that when they were over 60 or 65. And the reasons for that are things like social isolation, bereavement, and also as a way to deal with physical and mental illnesses that come on in later life.

“At the moment we don’t know the number of standard drinks associated with minimal dementia risk. So, one of the outcomes from this study we’re hoping will be a number, an actual number of drinks that are associated with minimal dementia risk,” she said.

The Chair of the Dementia Australia Research Foundation, Professor Graeme Samuel AC, said the grants provided support to early and mid-career researchers who want to make a difference in the field of dementia.

“With the number of people living with dementia expected to increase to almost 1.1 million by 2058, research into dementia is now more urgent than ever.

“Further, the broad range of projects supported, including nanotechnology, hip fracture prevention, enhancing cognition with exercise and personalising care through music, reflect the increased diversity and quality of research in the dementia space across Australia.

“This would not be possible without the support of our most valued donors and partnerships with the Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration and the Australian Association of Gerontology Research Trust,” Samuel said.

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One comment

  1. Will they allow for the confounding presence of fluoride and aluminium in the alcoholic beverages?
    A study from non-fluoridated Scotland showed an association between these two contaminants in the water and dementia.