Heavy Drinking Linked to Memory Loss

Heavy Drinking Connected to Memory Loss in Middle-Aged Men

man standing with his head in his hands

The risks associated with heavy drinking are often perceived as immediate, like reckless driving, risky sexual behaviors and impulsive behavior. But excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer, heart and liver disease. Now a new study is linking heavy drinking and memory loss.


The study shows that among middle-aged men, the consumption of more than two and a half glasses of alcohol may increase the speed at which memory loss occurs. The researchers discovered that daily heavy drinking can lead to one to six years faster memory loss, so a 50-year-old man would have the memory loss normally experienced by a 60-year-old man.

The researchers did not measure any impairment in executive skills or memory loss when examining men that did not drink. They also did not see the same type of memory loss when looking at former drinkers, or light to moderate drinkers.

Executive function is a critical part of the cognitive processing, responsible for such areas as reasoning and goal setting. Study author Séverine Sabia, Ph.D., says that much of the previous research on this topic was related to memory loss among older adults. This is the first study to examine the rate of memory loss in middle-aged men. The findings suggest that heavy drinking in men is connected to an increased rate of decline in all major areas of cognitive function.

The researchers looked at the drinking habits of 5,054 men and 2,099 women, conducting regular assessments three times over a ten year period. The participants were enrolled in an ongoing study called Whitehall II involving British civil servants.

The researchers included wine, beer and liquor in the measurement of alcohol consumption. When the participants reached an average age of 56 the researchers conducted a memory and executive function test and conducted follow-up cognitive exams over the next ten years.

The analysis showed that the memory loss and decline in executive function were similar when comparing men that did not drink alcohol and those that were light or moderate in their drinking habits. For the purposes of the study, the researchers considered less than 20 grams, or one and a half glasses per day, to be moderate drinking.

In the United States a standard drink is measured as any alcoholic beverage that consists of 0.6 fluid ounces of 14 grams of alcohol. Generally, wine, beer and mixed drinks each contain approximately the same amount of alcohol. The two-and-a-half alcoholic drinks measurement used by the study authors is equal to about 36 grams of alcohol.

The study’s findings show that when middle-aged men consume more than 36 grams of alcohol in a day, they are more likely to exhibit an increased rate of cognitive decline over a ten-year period. The same effect was fond in women, but measured only in executive function, not memory.

The results confirm earlier studies that show moderate alcohol consumption to be significantly different when compared to heavy alcohol consumption in its impact on cognitive functions. For men, heavy alcohol consumption may have a negative impact on cognitive aging.

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