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Drinking Alcohol Increases Risk for Dementia in Middle Age

A new report from National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) warns that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption in middle age. It has also been proposed that all people who hit 40 should be given a mid-life 'MOT' and that part of this should be advice about cutting down on alcohol. Another recent report has suggested that up to one third of cases of dementia are due to lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and lack of exercise.

Alcohol Intake and Dementia

Previously, the official line by health promoters in the UK is that there is a safe level of drinking alcohol. This is set at 21 units a week for men and 14 units a week for women, with these units needing to be spread over the whole week and not consumed at the same time. Many people who stick to these limits believe that they are maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but this report from NICE claims that they are enjoying a false sense of security. This is because when it comes to dementia there is no safe limit, at least where middle age is concerned.

There have also been claims in the past that a little bit of alcohol is good for the brain; there has even been some scientific evidence to support the idea. It now seems that evidence is pointing the other way, so it is definitely not a good idea to drink in the hope that it will reduce the risk of developing this condition.

The fact that alcohol increases the risk for dementia is a well-known phenomenon. In fact, one of the known dangers of alcoholism is the development of alcoholic dementia (Korsakoff syndrome or wet brain syndrome).  The reason alcohol is so dangerous is that it interferes with normal brain chemistry. It has also been found that excessive drinking accelerates the shrinkage of the brain in conditions like Alzheimer's disease.

Symptoms of Dementia

Dementia actually refers to a set of symptoms rather than an actual condition - there can be different causes of dementia and one of the most common is Alzheimer's disease. These symptoms involve a decline in cognitive ability. It is common for individuals to have problems with memory as they get older, but dementia involves more than just this; it refers to a situation where the cognitive decline is so severe that it interferes with a person's ability to live a normal life.

The symptoms of dementia tend to worsen over time, but the early warning symptoms include:

  • problems with short-term memory - in the beginning this can be put down as just forgetfulness until it starts to cause more problems for the person
  • difficulty performing everyday tasks
  • trouble finding the right word when having a conversation
  • finding it harder to keep track of things - for example, forgetting to pay the bills
  • losing things all the time, such as car keys
  • personality changes - people developing dementia can become more negative, suspicious, and anxious
  • making illogical or bad decisions - this can mean that the person is more susceptible to scams that he or she would have easily avoided in the past.
Should People Drink Alcohol?

The recommendations coming from NICE appear to be that nobody can drink alcohol safely once they reach middle age. It is doubtful that this warning will lead to a significant reduction in alcohol consumption among this demographic, but it is important that people are aware of the risks. The idea of a mid-life MOT would be a good way to spread the word though.

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