Link Between Heavy Alcohol Use And Early Onset Dementia Revealed

By Beth Leipholtz 03/01/18

Researchers studied over a million people diagnosed with dementia to uncover a possible connection to alcohol use disorder.

frontal lobe atrophy on MRI film probably Frontotemporal Dementia

Individuals who drink heavily may be setting themselves up for various risks later in life—including dementia, according to new research. 

According to The Guardian, the study, published in the Lancet Public Health journal, found that those who drink enough to end up hospitalized are at greater risk of developing vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The Guardian states that researchers utilized the French National Hospital Discharge database and studied more than one million people who had been diagnosed with dementia between 2008 and 2013. Of those patients, 38% of the 57,000 cases of early onset dementia were directly related to alcohol, and 18 also had a diagnosis of alcohol use disorders.

Researchers determined that overall, alcohol use disorders were associated with three times greater a risk of all types of dementia. 

Though this study revealed a link between heavy alcohol use and dementia, Dr. Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, told the Guardian that it doesn’t reveal the full extent of that link. 

“Previous research has indicated that even moderate drinking may have a negative impact on brain health and people shouldn’t be under the impression that only drinking to the point of hospitalization carries a risk,” she said. 

Though this study was not conducted to examine the effects of moderate drinking on dementia risk, lead author Michaël Schwarzinger, of the Translational Health Economics Network in France, tells the Guardian that the research demonstrates that damage to the brain by alcohol is irreversible. Even if heavy drinkers went extended periods of time without drinking, they were still at risk. 

“It is very striking that for people who were heavy drinkers and had at least a period of abstinence, the level of risk of dementia is about the same,” he said. 

Though there have been certain studies that have claimed alcohol can be beneficial, Schwarzinger says people should remain wary of that information because they were small studies. 

“Alcohol is a devastating problem, whatever the organ,” he told the Guardian. “Now we can add the brain to the list of liver, kidney and heart... A variety of measures are needed, such as reducing availability, increasing taxation, and banning advertising and marketing of alcohol, alongside early detection and treatment of alcohol use disorders.”

According to the Guardian, Robert Howard, professor of "old age psychiatry" at University College London, says this type of research was long overdue. 

“What is most surprising about this paper is that it has taken us so long to recognize that alcohol misuse and dependence are such potent risk factors for the development of dementia,” he said.

“We have long known that alcohol is directly neurotoxic, thiamine deficiency in alcoholics devastates memory, alcohol-related conditions such as cirrhosis and epilepsy can damage the brain and that vascular brain damage is accelerated by alcohol," said Howard. "Surprisingly, we’ve not traditionally considered alcohol and its misuse as an important risk factor for dementia and we were clearly wrong not to have done so.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.