Low levels of alcohol use, between one and seven standard drinks per week, are associated with small but significant changes in the brains of older adults, with heavy drinkers three times more likely to develop dementia, according to University of NSW researchers.
One large and influential study has even identified heavy drinking as the single most dangerous risk factor for dementia – when compared with other modifiable lifestyle risk factors.
With alcohol use increasing, particularly among Baby Boomers, UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) is using the silly season as an opportunity to launch Rethink My Drink, a world-first online study designed to help Australians over aged 60-75 years consider their alcohol consumption and be guided to reduce their intake and help prevent dementia.
Christmas is well known as a period of ‘binge drinking’ across all age groups, providing a window of opportunity for people who are already concerned about their drinking habits to take stock. Most recent evidence indicates that one in five Australians over 60 exceeds official guidelines of more than two drinks per day, putting themselves at risk of long term harm – higher than any other age group.
‘Many older adults do not realise that they are exceeding risky drinking guidelines,’ explains Dr Louise Mewton, Scientia Fellow and lead investigator of the study.
‘It’s critical for Australians over 60 to be aware that heavy alcohol use is the strongest modifiable risk factor for dementia in comparison to such things as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes,’ said Dr Mewton. ‘This means people who consume alcohol regularly have a genuine chance of preventing dementia if proper action is taken.’
Dementia is one of the leading causes of chronic disability in Australia and the second leading cause of death overall. It is the leading cause of death amongst women. By the middle of the century, it is predicted that the number of people living with a diagnosis of dementia will increase from 472,000 to well over one million people.
Currently, more than 1.6 million Australians are estimated to be involved in the care of a person with dementia.
Alcohol-related deaths and hospitalisations have increased in recent years among older Australians, and during the festive season Australia’s emergency services personnel are in higher demand.
‘Binge drinking is cultural – it doesn’t happen in all societies that consume alcohol,’ said Dr Mewton.
‘Given alcohol use and related harms are increasing in older adults, there is a critical need for brief alcohol intervention programs to support this group. Before the festive season begins is the perfect time to arm yourself with the tools you need to start a healthy relationship with alcohol,’ she said.
The UNSW study aims to determine whether an online alcohol brief intervention adapted for older adults can slow cognitive decline, while at the same time reduce alcohol consumption in older risky drinkers.
‘Through this study we plan to evaluate whether an online program is effective in helping older adults make healthier decisions about their alcohol consumption – ultimately to improve quality of life,’ said Dr Mewton.
Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing Co-Directors, Scientia Professors Perminder Sachdev and Henry Brodaty, said ‘Excessive alcohol use by older Australians is an under-recognised problem, and its harm is not fully appreciated. This study is a great first step in demonstrating that something can be done about it, and it may well contribute to the prevention of dementia in a large number of people.’
If you’re concerned about your alcohol consumption and would like to participate in this study, visit https://www.unswalcoholstudy.org.au/.