Researchers Examined All Known Dementia Risk Factors In A Study — And The Top One Was Alcohol

The cultural debate on whether alcohol is mostly good or alcohol is mostly bad hasn’t really been conclusive, likely in part due to how much alcohol we’re wont to consume. However, a new study is putting a pretty big tally in the column for how it could be hurting our bodies and brains, with researchers suggesting a link between alcohol use and dementia.

“Heavy drinking and alcohol-use disorders are the most important risk factors for dementia”

The study, published in scientific journal The Lancet Public Health, is the largest of its kind to date. Researchers looked at over one million patients in France who were newly diagnosed with dementia between 2008 and 2013. They culled that group from an initial population of 30 million patients, excluding those who had developed rare forms of dementia due to other health risks, like HIV, or neurological disorders, like Parkinson’s. Researchers then narrowed down the one million patients to 57,000 people with early-onset dementia (developed before age 65). They found that in more than half of these cases (57 percent) patients showed signs of alcohol-related brain damage or were previously diagnosed with an alcohol-use disorder.

Essentially, researchers found that heavy alcohol use was a significant risk factor for developing dementia. “The findings indicate that heavy drinking and alcohol-use disorders are the most important risk factors for dementia, and especially important for those types of dementia which start before age 65, and which lead to premature deaths,” said Dr. Jürgen Rehm, a coauthor for the study, to Science Daily.

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Researchers concluded that those diagnosed with alcohol-use disorders (defined by researchers as “the chronic harmful use of alcohol or alcohol dependence”) made patients more than three times as likely develop dementia early on. It also made patients more than twice as likely to develop types of dementia, like Alzheimer’s, not often linked with alcohol use.

This is not the first study to suggest heavy alcohol use and alcohol dependency drastically hurt heath. As Dr. Rehm stated, alcohol use disorders have been found to decrease life expectancy by an average of 20 years. According to Dr. Rehm, dementia is the number one cause of death among those with alcohol-use disorders.

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What constitutes heavy drinking may surprise you. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention puts heavy drinking for women at eight or more drinks a week. For men, that number is 14 or more. But exactly how big is this drink we’re talking about? The CDC says one “drink” of wine is five ounces, a beer is 12 ounces, and hard liquor is 1.5 ounces or about the size shot.

So, if you’re pouring yourself a full glass of wine every night and your wine glass is, say, Olivia Pope size, you may technically be getting into “heavy drinking” territory without realizing it.

As mentioned earlier, the occasional drink has also been linked with certain health benefits. Some research suggests that a nightly glass of wine can help with heart health and increase life longevity. Another recent study from the University of California Irvine found that drinking about two beers or two glasses of wine a day was linked to an 18 percent decrease in risk of early death. However, as Harvard’s School of Public Health points out, there isn’t agreement within the scientific community as to what constitutes “moderate” drinking.

There are also plenty of documented health risks linked to heavy alcohol use. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism list high blood pressure, heart damage, and liver damage among other effects as studied health risks associated with drinking.

So, does that mean we should stop drinking all together? Well, no, most likely. But this most recent study certainly adds to what we should consider possible long-term side effects of heavy drinking. “Alcohol-induced brain damage and dementia are preventable,” Dr. Rehm told Science Daily, “and known-effective preventive and policy measures can make a dent into premature dementia deaths.”

As researchers state in their study, “screening for heavy drinking should be part of regular medical care, with intervention or treatment being offered when necessary.” Additionally, we can all be a little more conscientious of how much and how often we’re drinking.