Understanding the risk of dementia and alcohol consumption

MEDICAL XPRESS – A recent study led by Dr. Louise Mewton at UNSW’s Centre for Healthy Brain Aging (CHeBA) has reignited the debate about whether low levels of drinking could be positive for health.

The review, published in Addiction, has shown that abstaining from alcohol completely can actually increase the risk of dementia.

In recent decades, the estimated global prevalence of dementia has nearly tripled, from 20.2 million in 1990 to 57.4 million in 2019. By 2050, the projection is that there will be 152 million people globally living with dementia.

According to researchers, risk factor reduction is a fundamental strategy for prevention of dementia—particularly in light of the absence of disease-modifying treatments for dementia.

A 2020 report from The Lancet Commission for Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care estimated that 40% of global dementia cases could be prevented or delayed if 12 key modifiable risk factors for dementia were eliminated—with excessive or harmful alcohol use in midlife newly listed as one of those factors.

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Dr. Mewton, who is Leader of the Risk Factors Group at CHeBA, said the inclusion of alcohol as a key risk factor for dementia was based on consistent and robust evidence indicating that chronic heavy alcohol use is associated with dementia and cognitive decline.

“There is controversy over the impact of more moderate levels of alcohol use on the incidence of dementia. Even low levels of alcohol use have been associated with poorer health outcomes, including increased cancer risk.”

“They have also been associated with atrophy in key regions of the brain linked to dementia, like the hippocampus.”

However, in this international study of nearly 25,000 community dwelling adults over the age of 65 including the United States, Australia, Europe, Brazil and the Republic of the Congo, it was consistently shown that abstaining from alcohol was associated with a higher risk of dementia.

“Our data came from 15 studies of healthy aging across six continents, and robust assessment of alcohol use and dementia,” said Dr. Mewton …

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One afternoon at Cheers, Cliff Clavin was explaining the Buffalo Theory
to his buddy Norm. Here’s how it went:

‘Well ya see, Norm, it’s like this… A herd of buffalo can only move as
fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the
slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural
selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and
health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the
weakest members. In much the same way, the human brain can only operate
as fast as the slowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, as we
know, kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks the slowest and
weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer
eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more
efficient machine. That’s why you always feel smarter after a few beers.’

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