Heavy Drinking Could Harm Memory Later

Memory loss tied to heavy drinking during middle age

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Too much alcohol can cloud your memory of an evening, but could it also cloud your memory later in life? A new study suggested it might.

This new study followed middle-aged people in the United Kingdom and measured drinking habits and cognitive function over a 20-year period.

The researchers found that men who drank more heavily during middle age saw faster cognitive decline later in life.

"Limit how much alcohol you drink to protect your memory."

This study, led by Séverine Sabia, PhD, of the Department of Epidemiology & Public Health at University College London, followed 5,054 men and 2,099 women from the Whitehall II cohort, an ongoing study of civil servants in Britain.

These participants completed three questionnaires at separate times to measure their drinking habits during a 10-year period. The drinking information was gathered from 1985 to 1988, 1991 to 1993 and 1997 to 1999.

The participants reported on both their levels of alcohol consumption during the previous year and the number of drinks they had in the seven previous days. One drink was considered a "measure" of spirits, a glass of wine or a pint of beer.

Dr. Sabia and team analyzed this information to determine the average number of grams of alcohol consumed a day.

Later, participants also completed three sets of cognitive tests during 1997 to 1999, 2002 to 2004 and 2007 to 2009. Participants ranged in age from 44 to 69 years old at the time that they took their first cognitive test and were between the ages of 55 and 80 at the last test.

The cognitive tests combined four individual measures to explore short-term memory and executive function, the reasoning skills that help to make plans or achieve a goal. The scores were combined to determine average, or "global," cognitive scores for participants.

The study's authors noted different drinking habits for men and women. For example, 14.7 percent of women were determined to be only occasional drinkers, had quit drinking or abstained completely from alcohol, compared to 5.6 percent of men. Because of differences like these, the genders were examined separately.

In analyzing the alcohol consumption next to the cognitive results, Dr. Sabia and team found no connection between cognitive decline and abstaining from alcohol, quitting drinking or drinking a light to moderate amount (20 daily grams or less, or under two drinks a day) among men.

However, the men whose alcohol consumption was over 36 grams a day (over two and a half drinks) had a faster cognitive decline compared to their lighter-drinking counterparts.

"The effect size is comparable to 2.4 extra years of cognitive decline in the global cognitive score ..., 1.5 extra years for executive function, and 5.7 extra years for memory," the study's authors wrote.

Though some differences were found for women, the findings were not strong enough to be considered statistically significant.

According to Eric Collins, MD, Physician-in-Chief at Silver Hill Hospital and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, "The study did not show an association between drinking and cognitive abilities in women, but it found that in men who consumed, on average, more than 2.5 drinks (corresponding to 30 oz of beer, half a bottle of wine, or just over 4 oz of 80 proof alcohol) daily during the 10 years of mid-life showed a decline in memory and cognitive abilities corresponding to a more rapid aging process during the next 10 years of life (ages 54 to 64). The effects on memory were most prominent, as the authors estimated that drinking more than 2.5 drinks daily was correlated with memory declines equivalent to those seen with 5.7 extra years of life."

“Much of the research evidence about drinking and a relationship to memory and executive function is based on older populations,” Dr. Sabia explained in a news release. "Our study focused on middle-aged participants and suggests that heavy drinking is associated with faster decline in all areas of cognitive function in men.”

It is important to note that alcohol consumption was self-reported, which could allow for some participant error. Further research is needed to confirm these findings.

This study was published online on January 15 in the journal Neurology.

Several study authors reported receiving support from a variety of organizations and research councils. Funding for the study was provided by a number of groups, including the British Medical Research Council, the British Heart Foundation and the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Review Date: 
January 15, 2014
Last Updated:
January 22, 2014