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Problem Drinking In Midlife Linked To Memory Trouble Later

How much is too much?
Robert S. Donovan/Flickr
How much is too much?

To ward off big memory problems in your 70s and beyond you may want to cork the bottle more often now.

In a study of 6,500 people published this week, adults with a midlife history of drinking problems were more than twice as likely as those without alcohol problems to suffer severe memory impairment decades later.

Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School, in Exeter, England, analyzed the records of more than 6,542 American adults who had been tracked for 19 years as a part of the Health and Retirement Study.

The drinking assessment was based on a questionnaire mailed in 1992 to the study participants, who were then between the ages of 51 and 61. Instead of directly asking the volunteers how much they typically drank each day, the questions fished for other, subtler indicators of an alcohol problem. The questionnaire asked if participants ever felt that they should cut down on drinking; if they had ever been annoyed by someone criticizing their drinking; and if they ever had a drink first thing in the morning.

"If you're saying yes to these questions you may be at risk," Iain Lang, a public health specialist and author of the study, tells Shots. "Current recommendations about drinking are about the numbers: 'Do not drink this amount of [alcohol] per day,' " he says. "We wanted to draw attention to people's own feelings on their drinking and to the responses of others."

After submitting the questionnaire, participants took a series of tests of memory and thinking. They underwent follow-up tests in 1996 and every two years thereafter.

In one test participants were asked to recall a list of 10 words, such as "mountain," "forest," and "light," immediately after it was read to them. Then they were given an activity to perform, and asked to repeat the words again. Other tests had the participants count back from 20 or recall the names of the current American president and vice president.

All participants did worse on the memory tests as the years went on. But those with histories of alcohol problems had a sharper decline. The findings appear in the current issue of American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

"If you're having problems with a test like that, I'm sure it carries through to your daily life," says Clare Walton, a neuroscientist from the Alzheimer's Society in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study.

Research shows nobody likes to own up to how much he drinks, so any study like this that's based on self-reported answers has limits, Walton says.

She points out that although answers to those three subjective questions can effectively point out an alcohol abuser about 70 percent of the time, they are still misidentifying people 30 percent of the time. Exactly how much alcohol it takes to do such damage, and over what time period, are still unknown.

Still, she says the work reinforces what other research has been showing: Drinking too much can increase a person's chances of developing serious memory problems and even dementia, which affects 13.9 percent of people over age 70.

"Taking this paper with previous evidence," she says, "people who are concerned with dementia should consider their drinking habits in midlife."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicholas St. Fleur
Up North Updates
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