Drinking More Than This a Week Makes Your Dementia Risk Soar, Study Says


You've heard the good news: Having a drink here and there can be good for your mental and even physical health. That doesn't mean it's a free-for-all, however. When you take drinking too far, it can lead to some serious negative effects, both immediately and down the line. In fact, one recent study found that if you consume a certain amount of alcohol per week, your risk of developing dementia spikes. Wondering if you're overdoing it? Read on to find out exactly when you should be cutting yourself off.

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Drinking more than 21 units of alcohol a week increases your risk of dementia.

Drinking in excess has long been known to harm the brain, and now there's more proof. A retrospective study commissioned and published by The Lancet in Aug. 2020 pinpointed 12 different risk factors of dementia. One key factor: Drinking more than 21 units per week was associated with a 17 percent increase in dementia, as compared to drinking less than 14 units (each unit being 10 mL of pure alcohol). One shot or a standard glass of wine or beer tends to come in at about one unit. The study advocates for people to limit their drinking to less than 21 units to help protect their brain.

Another study, conducted over five years and published in The Lancet in 2018, examined over 31 million hospital cases and found that alcohol-use disorders were linked with an increased risk of dementia. The study concluded that alcohol-use disorder was present in more than half of "early-onset dementias," which is any dementia that occurs before the age of 65.

"Excessive alcohol intake and binge drinking can potentially increase your risk for dementia by increasing the risk of liver disease, which can affect the brain, lead to thiamine deficiency, damage small blood vessels, and act as a toxin to brain cells," explains Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician and medical expert for Invigor Medical.

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But abstaining from alcohol entirely could also hurt your brain.
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It's all about striking a balance when it comes to drinking, science says. As Poston points out, "Several studies have indicated light to moderate drinking may be beneficial to brain health." Surprisingly, the 2020 study from The Lancet found that long-term abstinence from alcohol was associated with an increased risk of dementia. And a June 2020 study out of the University of Georgia found that "compared to non-drinkers, those that had one or two drinks a day tended to perform better on cognitive tests over time." The study, which spanned 10 years, found that participants who engaged in light to moderate drinking—meaning fewer than eight drinks per week for women and 15 drinks or fewer for men—scored higher on cognitive tests and had lower rates of decline in every area.

Dietitian Alexandra Soare, RDN, suggests that the benefits of drinking may in part be related to the social aspect that tends to come with consuming alcohol. "Dementia is highly correlated with environmental factors," Soare says. "Being surrounded by people and having a healthy social life can highly decrease the risk [of dementia]." Since moderate drinkers often have drinks with company, the social interaction can benefit the brain.

There are multiple risk factors to be aware of.

Of course, drinking is only one of the 12 risk factors outlined in the Aug. 2020 study in The Lancet. Head injuries, depression, air pollution, hearing loss, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes can all play a role in increasing your risk of dementia. Additionally, limited social interaction, not living an active lifestyle, and not getting an education are risk factors to be mindful of.

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But there are also steps you can take to manage your risk of dementia.

There are a handful of ways you can be proactive about mitigating your risk of dementia. Psychologist Aniko Dunn, PsyD, says exercising, eating healthy, meditating, and engaging in brain exercises can help stave off dementia. You can also work to reduce your risk of dementia by being proactive about avoiding the risk factors outlined in the Lancet study—all of which can help you maintain a healthy lifestyle where you're protecting your brain.

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