Middle-aged adults with a history of alcohol abuse are more than twice as likely as others to develop severe memory problems later in life, according to a new study.
The British researchers said their findings could help doctors identify those at risk for memory problems who might benefit from help for problem drinking.
"We already know there is an association between dementia risk and levels of current alcohol consumption -- that understanding is based on asking older people how much they drink and then observing whether they develop problems," said the study's leader, Dr. Iain Lang of University of Exeter Medical School in England, in a university news release. But little is known about the consequences of alcohol consumption earlier in life, he said.
"What we did here is investigate the relatively unknown association between having a drinking problem at any point in life and experiencing problems with memory later in life," Lang said.
The researchers examined the link between a history of alcohol-use disorders and the development of severe thinking and memory problems. The study involved more than 6,500 adults born between 1931 and 1941.
Researchers gauged patterns of alcohol abuse by asking participants if they ever felt the need to cut back on their drinking, if comments about their drinking annoyed them or if they ever felt guilty about how much they drank. Another critical question: Did they ever have a drink first thing in the morning to steady their nerves or get rid of a hangover?
After an initial assessment in 1992, the participants were re-evaluated every other year from 1996 to 2010. The study, published July 30 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, revealed the odds of developing severe memory problems more than doubled among those with a history of alcohol abuse.
While the study found a link between early alcohol abuse and later memory problems, it didn't find a cause-and-effect relationship.
Dr. Doug Brown, director of research and development at England's Alzheimer's Society, said conversations about excessive drinking often focus on young people who end up in the emergency room after a night out. "However, there's also a hidden cost of alcohol abuse given the mounting evidence that alcohol abuse can also impact on [thinking and memory] later in life," he said in the news release.
"This small study shows that people who admitted to alcohol abuse at some point in their lives were twice as likely to have severe memory problems, and as the research relied on self-reporting that number may be even higher," Brown said.
He pointed out, however, that a small amount of alcohol, such as an occasional glass of red wine, could actually have a protective effect on the brain.