Teetotalers at as much risk of dementia as excessive drinkers

Research suggest abstinence in middle age can increase the risk of dementia

So a team of researchers from Inserm (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) based in France and from UCL in the United Kingdom set out to investigate the association between midlife alcohol consumption and risk of dementia into early old age.

The research, which began in the mid-1980s, tracked the health of over 9,000 people aged 33 to 55 years over the years since the its inception.

In an accompanying BMJ editorial commentary Sevil Yasar, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the United States, said the study contained a number of significant findings.

Among excessive drinkers - those who consumed more than 14 units per week, the equivalent of over four pints of five per cent ABV beer or six 175ml glasses of average strength wine - experts found a heightened risk of dementia which increased the more a person drank.

'These results suggest that abstention and excessive alcohol consumption are associated with an increased risk of dementia, although the underlying mechanisms are likely to be different in the two groups, ' the authors wrote. "However, adjustment for confounding factors did not alter the findings". Alcohol consumption trajectories between 1985 and 2004 were also used to examine the association of long-term alcohol consumption and risk of dementia from midlife to early old age.

At the same time, the study cautioned, the findings "should not motivate people who do not drink to start drinking given the known detrimental effects of alcohol consumption for mortality, neuropsychiatric disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and cancer".

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Currently, the United Kingdom guidelines for the consumption of alcohol stand at 14 units per week for both men and women.

Some good news for moderate drinkers: total abstinence from alcohol increases the risk of dementia just as much as swilling the stuff down.

Commenting on the study, Dr Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: 'As this study only looked at people's drinking in midlife, we don't know about their drinking habits earlier in adulthood, and it is possible that this may contribute to their later life dementia risk.

However, the researchers said that this is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, and they cannot rule out the possibility that some of the risk may be due to unmeasured factors.

The authors say while the study is important to fill gaps in knowledge, "we should remain cautious and not change current recommendations on alcohol use based exclusively on epidemiological studies".

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