According to the latest research out of the University of Western Australia, older men who drink alcohol are not more likely to suffer from cognitive impairment in later life as previously thought.
Professor Osvaldo Almeida, the research director at The University of Western Australia’s Centre for Health and Ageing and lead author of a paper published online in the leading international journal, “Neurology”, alcohol itself is not a direct cause of cognitive impairment as previously thought.
The research was conducted as part of the Health in Men Study (HIMS), which has been following a group of men living in Perth, Western Australia since 1996. The HIMS study is the largest study of ageing men in Australia.
Professor Almeida went on to explain:
“Heavy alcohol consumption is known to be detrimental to health, so these results were counter intuitive,” Professor Almeida said.
He said that a commonly held belief, based on previous association studies, was that excessive alcohol use is a cause of cognitive impairment. However, the link had never actually been proven.
He and his fellow researchers decided to test the theory by examining a gene known to be responsible for how successfully a person is able to metabolise alcohol – that is, their degree of tolerance for alcohol.
During the study, the researchers used a design known as Mendelian randomisation to analyse the genetic data from 3542 older men between the ages of 65 and 83 years old which incorporates genetic information into traditional epidemiologic methods.
Part of the research involved questioning participants about their alcohol consumption over the previous year. Each of the men were divided into categories including abstainers, occasional drinkers or regular drinkers depending on the number of standard drinks they consumed each week and those who drank more than 35 standard drinks per week were classified as alcohol abusers.
Thereafter the men’s decrease in brain processing speed and efficiency and their memory’s deterioration were measured with a validated scale 6 years later.
According to the professor, the fact that people with the genetic variant that makes them avoid alcohol should have a lower risk of cognitive impairment later in life but don’t, is a sign that heavy alcohol use isn’t a direct cause of cognitive impairment.
Professor Almeida concluded that drinking alcohol, even heavily and abusing alcohol was not a direct cause of cognitive impairment in later life didn’t directly cause cognitive impairment but rather indirect causes such as poor nutrition and head injury were more likely to be responsible for people’s previous association between alcohol abuse and cognitive impairment.
The study concluded the following,
In addition, the authors wrote: “Our results are consistent with the possibility, but do not prove, that regular moderate drinking decreases the risk of cognitive impairment in older men.”
Professor Almeida said the study was limited to older men and it was unclear if the results could be generalised to other age groups or women. These results contribute to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that contribute to cognitive decline as people age.