The Complicated Relationship Between Alcohol Consumption And Dementia

Understanding dementia and its causes, symptoms, and treatments would take you down the road of differentiating between dementia and Alzheimer's disease, two of the most commonly thrown-around names in relation to memory loss. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines dementia as an umbrella term that encompasses a group of illnesses that affect a person's memory, thought, and decision-making abilities. Alzheimer's disease falls under that group. 

Dementia isn't a natural part of aging, as some would believe (via CDC). Although some small memory slip-ups like momentarily forgetting someone's name or where you put something in the house are part and parcel of growing old, these temporary challenges in memory do not signify dementia. The disease would actually manifest in significant problems with memory (i.e., forgetting the names of close family members or entire recollections from their past), communication, decision-making, sight, and reasoning, all of which would mean the person wouldn't be able to function independently anymore.  

The Alzheimer's Association notes that more people in the U.S. die of Alzheimer's or another form of dementia than breast cancer and prostate cancer put together. The numbers have increased alarmingly from 2000 to 2019. Dementia is essentially caused by damage to a person's brain cells. Notably, a new study has found an unexpected link between daily levels of alcohol consumption and dementia.

Mild to moderate daily alcohol intake may reduce the risk of dementia

A 2023 study involving 4 million people from South Korea published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Network has found that mild to moderate daily intake of alcohol was shown to decrease the risk of developing dementia (21% and 17% less likely, respectively) versus not drinking at all; anything over two drinks actually put the participants at a higher risk (8% more likely).

Study author and assistant professor at CHA Gumi Medical Center, CHA University in Gumi, South Korea, Dr. Keun Hye Jeon, told CNN Health however, that the results of the survey in no way mean that there is a "clinical recommendation" to take up mild alcohol consumption if you're abstaining from it. The effects alcohol has on your body have been extensively studied. 

The participants, aged 40 years or older, were asked to undergo tests and answer questions about their drinking and other lifestyle habits. Their medical records were studied too. They were then grouped into "mild" alcohol drinkers (consuming less than 15 grams a day), "moderate" drinkers (consuming 15 to 29.9 grams a day), and "heavy" drinkers (consuming over 30 grams a day) based on what they said. Information was collected at two points — 2009 and 2011 — and researchers observed if the participants had increased or decreased their amounts over those years. Furthermore, the participants' medical records from 2018 were analyzed to find any links with the disease in question.   

The takeaway, though, is a little complicated

Preventive neurologist and Alzheimer's researcher Dr. Richard Isaacson told CNN Health that even though the study involved a strong number of participants, one must be careful when it comes to alcohol consumption, especially if they have one or two copies of the gene variant that is a risk factor for Alzheimer's. "Alcohol has been shown to be harmful for brain outcomes in people with that risk gene [APOE4] ... " he explained. Dr. Isaacson also brought attention to the possibility for error when researchers base data on medical records and what participants share as information. Memory, which is ironically what this study was all about, can not always work in their favor. 

U.K. Alzheimer's Society cautions against heavy alcohol consumption which, over time, can lead to memory problems, brain damage, and Korsakoff's Syndrome. It also advises against people taking up mild or moderate daily alcohol consumption as a means of staving off dementia because the studies done so far are not entirely conclusive. 

Dr. Sadie Boniface, research head at the Institute of Alcohol Studies in London, U.K. told Medical News Today that, "Even if there were protective effects of small amounts for some conditions, these are outweighed by other health risks," such as cancers that are caused by moderate amounts of alcohol. One must also keep in mind that the lifestyle habits of the participants are unique to where they live and can't be effectively applied to those outside of South Korea.