Alcohol and Dementia: Is There a Link Between the Two?

It is well documented that alcohol has several adverse effects on both short- and long-term health. While organ damage is the most prevalent effect of long-term and excessive alcohol consumption, recent studies indicate there may also be a link between alcohol and dementia. However, the link is tenuous, and its strength depends on how much alcohol an individual consumes on a weekly basis.

Whether you’re a drinker or a non-drinker, or if you worry about your alcohol use, it may be helpful to understand how alcohol affects the brain. With an understanding of the link, you may gain the knowledge and motivation necessary to change your lifestyle for the better.

Is Alcohol Consumption a Risk Factor for Dementia?

Alcohol can be a risk factor for dementia, but it’s not always. Excessive alcohol consumption over a considerable length of time has been known to contribute to brain damage and eventual dementia. Per multiple studies from both the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and Alzheimer’s Disease International, individuals who binge drink or drink heavily on a regular basis are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia than their moderately-drinking counterparts.

That said, there are no conclusive studies that show that, when consumed in moderation, alcohol increases one’s risk for dementia. Neither, however, is there evidence that suggests that moderate alcohol use protects the brain against damage and memory loss.

What Do These Conclusions Mean for You?

Unfortunately, the conclusions don’t tell you much. If you drink alcohol moderately, researchers don’t necessarily urge you to stop — at least, if your goal is to reduce your risk of dementia. Neither, however, do they encourage non-drinkers to start. The only thing researchers can safely conclude from existing findings is that, if you tend to drink heavily, your brain health may benefit by cutting back.

What Is “Moderate” Alcohol Consumption?

If you enjoy your nightly glass of wine or evening cocktail, you may worry that your alcohol use falls out of the “moderate” category and leans more toward “heavy.” Before you start to panic, know that “moderate” alcohol use is a generous term. Women who drink moderately consume one to 14 units of alcohol per week. Men who drink moderately consume one to 21 units of alcohol in the same amount of time.

Note that a unit does not refer to a single drink. Rather, a unit of alcohol is measured by the amount of pure alcohol in a given volume. For an idea of how much alcohol may be in your favorite beverage, consider the following:

  • One glass (175 mL) of wine is two units.
  • A single shot of spirits, such as vodka, whiskey or rum is one unit.
  • A single pint of low-alcohol beer or cider (3.6% or lower) is two units.
  • A single pint of high-alcohol beer or cider (5.2%) is three units.

What this means is that if you drink a single glass of wine a night or two cocktails per night, your alcohol consumption falls within the moderate range, and that your future brain health is likely A-okay.

What Should You Take Away From This Information?

The most conclusive findings indicate that excessive alcohol consumption does increase one’s risk of developing dementia later in life. That said, if you are to take anything away from this information, it is that you should keep your alcohol use in the fair to moderate range. If you struggle to do that, it may be best for your current and long-term health to cut alcohol out of your life entirely, at least for the time being.

Stress, Memory, and the Brain

A common characteristic of stress is forgetfulness and disorientation. Most people accept that bouts with anxiety or worry will result in diminished cognitive returns. However, many do not realize that chronic stress can affect memory and cognitive health.

According to medical research on people and animals, there is a direct correlation between stress and brain function, particularly with how the brain processes information. Whether real-life stress or manufactured stress in a lab setting, the research demonstrates how stress interferes with attention, cognition, and memory.

Studies also show a correlation between stress, emotional states, and inflammation. The effects of stress are both psychological and physical, and it is common for chronic sufferers to experience health problems, including brain and heart diseases.

The Brain and Stress

Before you can understand the effects of stress on thinking and memory, you must acknowledge some of the fundamental processes of the brain. The brain compromises several parts that perform individual tasks and operate as a whole. Therefore the brain is not a single unit. The general understanding from this singular observation is when one part of the brain takes center stage; the other parts give up some of their collective energy to focus on the primary task.

When in a dangerous, stressful, or emotionally taxing situation, the amygdala, or survival guru of the brain, takes over. The other parts of the brain tasked with memory and higher-order tasks receive less energy, meaning they are less capable at the moment. Many scientists speculate survival mode is the reason people can become more forgetful when under stress, possibly experiencing memory lapses depending on the trauma of the event.

Stress and Long-Term Brain Changes

Chronic stress can rewire the brain over time. During the study of animals, scientists noticed a measurable decline in the activity of the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain responsible for higher-order tasks. The results were the opposite for the amygdala and the parts of the brain responsible for survival.

Scientists liken the changes to exercise. A person should expect the muscle groups they focus on to develop more than those they don't. The same happens for someone experiencing chronic stress. The parts of the brain getting the most focus are those associated with survival; therefore, these areas develop while areas tasked with complex reasoning and thought take a backseat.

Differences in Stress Types

You cannot dispute the effect of stress on the brain because it is well-documented. However, determining the type of stress that leads to damage or memory problems is not as clear.

Stress is broadly defined and typically accounts for all variables of the term. Using too broad a definition is problematic because the circumstances surrounding occurrences of stress can vary greatly. For instance, anxiety before an exam is short-lived, and most scientists hypothesize it will not lead to problems later, but the trauma of a car accident can have lasting psychological and physical injuries.

Stress Management Is Necessary for Reduced Risks

The one constant throughout leading research is stress' adverse effects. The best thing people can do to reduce the potential risks of long-term or chronic stress is to find ways to mitigate it.

Mindfulness, meditation, and exercise are all potential remedies for stress. While most people struggle to find personal time in today's 24/7 world, you need to find moments for personal care, even if it is just five minutes of quiet in your office chair.

What are your favorite ways to destress?

7 Early Warning Signs of Dementia

Dementia does not refer to a specific disease but a general loss of memory, problem-solving, language and other critical thinking skills. For many people, losing memory is like losing identity because personality encompasses experience. While dementia can affect people to varying degrees, warning signs exist. If you detect the condition early enough, it is possible to slow its progression. According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, there are early warning signs of dementia.

1. Challenges Performing Routine Tasks

Everyone can experience a lapse in memory when performing routine tasks, like forgetting to plate a part of a meal when you're busy. The difference between normal forgetfulness and dementia is a person with dementia will experience habitual lapses. Also, their forgetfulness will involve tasks they have performed countless times throughout their lives; for example, they may forget how to make a meal or even play a favorite game.

2. Memory Loss Affecting Day-To-Day Activities

Forgetting appointments or names are relatively common. In a busy world, it is normal for the brain to have momentary lapses. People with dementia will forget things frequently; they may also forget things they recently learned. If someone you love is struggling to retain new information or forgetting the familiar, it might be time to get them to a doctor.

3. Disorientation With Time and Place

It is challenging to diagnose dementia early because it mimics regular lapses in judgment and memory. A healthy person can occasionally forget what day of the week it is or why they made a left turn when they should have turned right. A person with dementia experiences these common occurrences of forgetfulness with greater frequency and severity.

4. Language Problems

People with dementia often struggle to find the right word or phrase. They can also insert random words into their sentences, making it hard to decipher what they mean. Language problems can lead to frustration and anger because a person with dementia often understands what they want to say; they just can't communicate it.

5. Trouble With Abstract Thought

While you may not realize it, you likely use abstract thinking skills daily. Balancing a checkbook and making a purchase are simple but abstract activities because they revolve around the idea of numbers and applied meaning. People with dementia often forget how to work with numbers, and some may even forget what they are.

6. Impaired Judgment

Dementia can affect the reasoning part of the brain, meaning people with dementia will often make questionable decisions. While you may understand you shouldn't wear a winter coat on a hot day, someone with dementia may not see a problem with it. Also, people with dementia may not recognize when they need medical attention, which is potentially life-threatening.

7. Behavioral and Personality Changes

A person with dementia can experience extreme mood swings within a short period. Also, shifts in emotion can occur for no apparent reason. They can go from laughing one minute to crying the next and having an angry outburst the next.

Additionally, dementia can cause significant personality changes. A person experiencing symptoms may become increasingly suspicious, withdrawn or confused.

Dementia is scary for many people. If you believe you or a loved one is showing early signs of dementia, consult a medical professional.