What does drinking alcohol do to your health?
Alcohol is right up there with smoking and exercise when it comes to media stories about health risks and benefits, but it can be hard to keep up unless you’re glued to your computer. Here are some of the recent research findings on alcohol and what they mean for our health.
Alcohol binges are bad for the brain
A recent study from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Exeter looking at people aged 65 or more found that 8.3 percent of men and 1.5 per cent of women reported binge drinking once a month or more; 4.3 percent of men and 0.5 per cent of women reported doing so twice a month or more. The consequences of this make for sobering reading.
Those who reported binge drinking at least once a month were:
- 62% more likely to be in the group experiencing the greatest decline in cognitive function.
- 27% more likely to be in the group experiencing the greatest amount of memory decline.
Not surprisingly, it was worse for those for whom binge drinking happened twice or more a month. These people were:
- 147% more likely to be in the group experiencing the greatest decline in cognitive function.
- 149% more likely to be in the group experiencing the greatest amount of memory decline.
All 5,075 people involved had taken part in the Health and Retirement Study in the USA, which defined four or more drinks on one occasion as binge drinking.
Dr Iain Lang who led the research said “We know binge drinking can be harmful: it can increase the risk of harm to the cardiovascular system, including the chance of developing heart disease; and it is related to an increased risk of both intentional and unintentional injuries. However, until we conducted our study it was not clear what the effect was of binge drinking on cognitive function and the risk of developing dementia.”
Women over 65 at increased risk
Another group who studied more than 1,300 women of 65 and over for a period of 20 years looked at how often they drank alcohol, both currently and the past, taking the beginning, middle and later years of the study as their observation points. At the end of the study the researchers from NCIRE/The Veterans Heath Research Institute, San Francisco, and the University of California, San Francisco assessed the women for mild cognitive impairment and for dementia.
The results showed that:
- The women who reported drinking more in the past than at the beginning of the study were at 30% increased risk of developing cognitive impairment.
- Women who were moderate drinkers at the beginning or middle of the study had similar risk of cognitive impairment to non-drinkers.
- Moderate drinkers in the late stage of the study were about 60% more likely to develop cognitive impairment.
Most striking of all, women who started drinking alcohol durng the course of the study had a 200% increased risk of cognitive impairment.
“In this group of older women, moderate alcohol consumption was not protective,” said Tina Hoang, of NCIRE/The Veterans Heath Research Institute. “We found that heavier use earlier in life, moderate use in late-life, and transitioning to drinking in late-life were associated with an increased risk of developing cognitive impairment. These findings suggest that alcohol use in late-life may not be beneficial for cognitive function in older women.”
Both studies were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2012 in Vancouver.
Drinking alcohol cuts rheumatoid arthritis risk
On the positive side, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have discovered that regular modest drinking can reduce women’s risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The researchers followed 34,141 Swedish women, born between 1914 and 1948. The study lasted for seven years, when the women were aged from 54 to 89.
The results showed that women who drank more than three glasses of alcohol a week for at least 10 years have about half the risk of developing RA than those who drank less than one glass a week. This may be because RA is an autoimmune disease, and alcohol can lower our bodies’ immune response.
How much alcohol is too much?
Because excess drinking causes severe health problems, from car accidents to cancer, there will always be more news on this topic coming our way. For instance, the Department of Health estimates that ‘harmful use of alcohol’ costs the National Health Service around £2.7 bn a year. Drinking can lead to a frightening array of medical conditions, including cancer, stroke, hypertension, heart disease and liver disease – more than 40 in total.
Expect to see new official advice on drinking. Officials at the Department of Health, led by the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, will be carrying out their planned review of drinking guidelines in the near future.
This will be the first review of official advice in 15 years, since the current guidelines were brought out in 1995. The aim is to produce a set of guidelines that are straightforward and easy to understand, and will apply to the whole of the UK. One of the recommendations we might see is advice to stay drink-free for at least two days a week, guidance that is already in place in Scotland.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of the review, and whether it makes a difference to the health of the nation. After all, it’s one thing to give advice, it’s quite another to get us to take it.