ALCOHOL USE AND AN INCREASED RISK OF DEMENTIA
- August 18, 2018
For years, researchers have suggested that there is a relationship between alcohol and dementia. Some argue that it can increase the chances of a person developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Others claim that drinking a certain amount of alcohol can actually protect against dementia. So which is true?
First, a brief primer on dementia and Alzheimer’s. Dementia refers to a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. There may also be changes in mood or behavior. Dementia occurs when the brain is damaged by injury or disease. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the main causes of dementia. It’s characterized by the formation in the brain of something called beta-amyloid plaques. These are basically sticky clumps of protein that interfere with signals transmitted between brain cells, obstructing the circulation of information in the brain. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted a study in which they discovered that alcohol can prevent the brain from clearing out these blockages, increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
According to research published in early 2018 by Medical News Today, heavy drinking is linked with a definite increase in the chances of dementia. When alcohol is broken down in the body, it produces acetaldehyde, which is more toxic than the alcohol itself to brain cells. Heavy drinking can also lead to thiamine deficiency, which can cause both brain damage and heart disease, and is a cause of a neurological disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome causes confusion and loss of mental activity that can progress to coma and death, loss of muscle coordination (ataxia) that can cause leg tremors, vision changes, loss of memory, inability to form new memories, and hallucinations.
Alcohol consumption can lead to dementia in other ways, such as by causing injuries due to lack of coordination or poor reflexes. It also raises blood pressure, which can contribute to brain damage. Smoking, depression, and low education levels are also risk factors for dementia, and they tend to go hand in hand with heavy drinking.
It’s clear that heavy drinking and dementia are related, but what about mild or moderate alcohol use? This is where researchers disagree. According to a study published in The British Medical Journal, long term abstinence from alcohol was linked to increased risk of dementia – 47 percent higher than in people who drank moderately. Some scientists point to the anti-inflammatory properties of alcohol as a possible explanation. The problem is that this study didn’t account for the reasons why people might abstain from drinking. For example, they might have other health problems that prevent them from doing so, or were taking medication that didn’t allow alcohol consumption. They also may have been heavy drinkers in the past. Any of these things could explain the greater risk of dementia.
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