New study analyses the relationship between alcohol use and long-term cognitive decline in middle and late life

Using UK Biobank data, a new study conducted by a team including Crime and Security Research Institute Co-director Professor Simon Moore has sought to explain the relationship between alcohol intake and cognitive decline in middle and older aged populations.

The study was conducted as part of the ELAStiC project, which looks at the impact of alcohol misuse on health and well-being, and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Medical Research Council (MRC) and Alcohol Research(ARUK). The findings of the study suggest that consuming more than one UK standard unit of alcohol per day can be detrimental to cognitive performance.

Data was used from 13,342 men and women, aged between 40 and 73 years old. A regression analysis was conducted, that tested the impact of alcohol on mental performance. A perceptual matching task was performed, in which participants were shown two cards with symbols on – if the symbols matched then they were to indicate this on a keyboard. The study measured how quickly participants responded. Slower reaction times in this task are believed to predict the likelihood of dementia.

The study investigated the relationship between the reaction time and the amount of alcohol consumed. Reaction time started to increase when people were drinking 10g of alcohol a day on average (1 unit of alcohol is 8g). It also found that the decline was more apparent as the age of the individual increased.

Graph showing Reaction times and Daily alcohol use
Figure A. Marginal effect plot of mean reaction time (99% confidence interval) at follow-up with respect to average daily alcohol use at baseline for the full sample (N = 13,342). Estimates are adjusted for age, number of years between assessments, gender, education, Townsend deprivation score, smoking status, BMI, walking activity and RT at baseline.

The study concludes that the relationship between alcohol use and cognitive function is non-linear. Consuming more than one UK standard unit of alcohol per day is detrimental to cognitive performance, and is more pronounced in older populations. In the UK current drinking guidelines are 2 units a day. The study suggests UK guidelines should be reduced to one unit per day.


Cardiff University


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