Little is known about the cognitive effects of heavy episodic (or "binge") drinking in older people. Binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption in which someone who is not otherwise a heavy drinker consumes several drinks on one occasion.
"We know that binge drinking can be harmful," said Dr. Iain Lang of Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Exeter, UK. "For example, it can increase the risk of harm to the cardiovascular system, including the chance of developing heart disease, and it is related to increased risk of both intentional and unintentional injuries."According to Lang, it is not clear whether binge drinking in older adults has a damaging effect on cognitive health and whether it increases the risk a person will develop dementia.
Lang and colleagues conducted a secondary analysis of data from 5,075 participants aged 65 and older in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a biennial, longitudinal, nationally representative survey of U.S. adults age 50 and older, to assess the effects of binge drinking in older people on cognition and mood. Baseline data were collected in 2002 and participants were followed for eight years. Consumption of four or more drinks on one occasion was considered binge drinking. Cognitive function and memory were assessed using the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status.
Binge drinking once a month or more was reported by 8.3% of men and 1.5% of women; binge drinking twice a month or more was reported by 4.3% of men and 0.5% of women.
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"In our group of community-dwelling older adults, binge drinking is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline," Lang said. "Those who reported binge drinking at least twice a month were more than twice as likely to have the greatest decline in both cognitive function and memory. These differences were present even when we took into account other factors known to be related to cognitive decline such as age and level of education."
"This research has a number of implications. First, older people – and their physicians should be aware that binge drinking may increase their risk of experiencing cognitive decline and encouraged to change their drinking behaviors accordingly. Second, policymakers and public health specialists should know that binge drinking is not just a problem among adolescents and younger adults; we have to start thinking about older people when we are planning interventions to reduce binge drinking," Lang added.Iain Lang, et al. Heavy episodic drinking and risk of cognitive decline in older adults. (Funder: National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) for the South West Peninsula)
Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room