Heavy drinking is a “major risk factor” for developing early-onset dementia, scientists have found.
A study published in The Lancet journal revealed it was a risk factor for all types of dementia, especially early-onset, where people develop the disease before they reach 65 years old.
Heavy (or problem) drinking is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Medicines Agency as drinking at least 60g (7.5 units) of pure alcohol per day for men, equivalent to two 250ml glasses of 14% ABV wine or three pints of lager or ale, and at least 40g (5 units) for women, equivalent to two 175ml glasses of the same strength wine or two pints.
Dementia is an incurable condition which affects 5-7% of people aged 60 and over and is the leading cause of disability in this group.
Scientists wanted to look at the link between alcohol use disorders (problem drinking) and dementia risk. The NHS estimates that just under one in 10 men in the UK and one in 20 women show signs of alcohol dependence.
They analysed data from adults aged 20 and over who were admitted to hospitals in France between 2008 and 2013. One million people who were discharged were diagnosed with dementia and included in the analyses.
Of the 57,353 cases of early-onset dementia, almost half were either exclusively alcohol-related (22,338 people) or had an additional diagnosis of alcohol use disorders (10,115 people).
Researchers recommend that screening for heavy drinking should be part of regular medical care, with intervention or treatment being offered when necessary. They added that other alcohol policies should be considered to reduce heavy drinking in the general population.
Lead researcher Michaël Schwarzinger told HuffPost UK: “We were surprised by the magnitude of the problem in this nationwide study in France.
“56% of early-onset dementia cases were related to heavy drinking: two-third in men; one-third in women. And the direct association of heavy drinking with dementia goes far beyond 65 years old.”
He added that future studies are needed to clarify the alcohol threshold where people significantly become at higher risk for dementia. “It is certainly at a lower level than 60g per day for men and 40g per day for women.
Problem drinking warning signs:
1. You find it difficult to enjoy yourself or relax without having a drink.
2. You’re regularly drinking more than 14 units per week. That’s one-and-a-half bottles of low-alcohol wine (11% ABV), one-and-a-third bottles of high-alcohol wine (14% ABV) and six to eight cans of lager (depending on alcohol strength).
3. You worry about where your next drink is coming from and plan social, family and work events around alcohol.
4. You have a compulsive need to drink and find it hard to stop once you start.
5. You wake up and feel the need to have a drink in the morning.
6. You regularly wake up and can’t remember what happened the night before due to heavy drinking.
7. You experience feelings of anxiety, alcohol-related depression and suicidal feelings.
8. You suffer from physical withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, shaking and nausea, which stop once you drink alcohol.
9. Other people have expressed concern about your drinking.
10. You hide your drinking from people who care about you.
11. You take risks such as driving over or near the limit.
12. You drink at lunchtime and go back to work.
13. You use gum or breath freshener to hide the smell of alcohol.
If you’re worried about problem drinking, there are ways you can cut down. Claire Rimmer, lead addictions therapist at the Priory Hospital in Altrincham, Cheshire, urges people to admit they have a problem and be honest with their friends and family about it. Next, make a commitment to either reducing drinking habits or stopping completely. “Set daily goals for yourself,” she advises. “Decide how many drinks you will limit yourself to and stick to it. If your goal is to completely stop drinking alcohol, set yourself a realistic date when you will stop drinking alcohol completely.”
If you don’t believe you have a drink problem but would like to cut down on booze, Drink Aware recommends doing more activities that don’t involve drinking or trying other ways to unwind or relax. If you still want to go out and drink: choose lower-strength drinks or low-alcohol-drinks, opt for smaller measures, avoid drinks rounds at social gatherings and alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks or water.
For more information on cutting down, check out our piece on drinking responsibly.