Abstinence in middle age found to increase dementia risk by 45%

A 23-year study to examine the association between drinking alcohol and the risk of dementia has concluded that those who chose to abstain from drinking alcohol in middle age had a higher risk of developing dementia compared to those who drank in moderation.

A total of 9,087 participants from the civil service, aged 35-55 years at the time of the study’s inception, took part in the research, led by University College London and the French institute for health, tracking their drinking habits and mental health. 

Published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), researchers identified 397 cases of dementia through hospital, mental health services and mortality records.

The data showed that abstinence in midlife was associated with a 45% higher risk of dementia compared with people who consumed between one and 14 units of alcohol per week.

For those who drank more than 14 units a week, the risk of dementia risk increased by 17%, with every additional seven units per week.

Presenting its findings the researchers stated: “Given the number of people living with dementia is expected to triple by 2050 and the absence of a cure, prevention is key. We show that both long term alcohol abstinence and excessive alcohol consumption may increase the risk of dementia. The UK guidelines suggest an alcohol threshold of 14 units/week but many countries use a much higher threshold to define excessive consumption. The present study encourages the use of a lower threshold of alcohol consumption in such guidelines, applicable over the adult life course, in order to promote cognitive health.

Currently, the UK guidelines for the consumption of alcohol stand at 14 units per week for both men and women.

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) commented on the findings, acknowledging that it was encouraging to see a piece of research that highlighted the positive effects of moderate drinking over two decades.

“Not only does moderate, sensible consumption of alcohol reduce the incidence of dementia compared to teetotallers, there is evidence it also has beneficial effects in guarding against type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, macular degeneration and many other conditions,” said James Calder, head of public affairs at SIBA. “This study backs what we know, and the temperance movement refuse to accept – that the J shaped curve between alcohol consumption and life expectancy is real.

“The social effect and positive benefits to mental health of having a beer with your friends and family in the pub also cannot be overlooked. That’s why SIBA and brewers across the country are backing the Long Live the Local campaign which aims to cut beer tax and protect that vital national institution – the UK pub.”

Notably, the study did not take into account participants’ drinking habits before middle age.

Dr Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: “As this study only looked at people’s drinking in midlife, we don’t know about their drinking habits earlier in adulthood, and it is possible that this may contribute to their later life dementia risk. People who completely abstain from alcohol may have a history of heavy drinking and this can make it difficult to interpret the links between drinking and health.

“Future research will need to examine drinking habits across a whole lifetime, and this will help to shed more light on the relationship between alcohol and dementia.”

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