Studies link alcohol to early death, memory loss
January 15th, 2014
05:43 PM ET

Studies link alcohol to early death, memory loss

Nearly 80,000 people die as a result of drinking alcohol each year in North and Latin America, according to a new study published Tuesday in the Journal Addiction.

Researchers looked at alcohol as the cause of death by examining death certificates, over a two-year period in 16 North and Latin American countries. Men accounted for 84% of alcohol-related deaths.

Maristela Monteiro, study author and a senior advisor on alcohol and substance abuse at the Pan American Health Organization, says people are drinking too much and "it's killing people before they should be dying."

"These deaths are all 100 percent preventable," she says. 

But how much is too much? According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heavy drinking is defined as consuming more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men. One drink is considered 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol - equivalent to a 12-ounce beer, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, or a 5-ounce glass of wine.

Researchers found liver disease was the most common cause of death, but a wide range of diseases including heart disease, stroke, epilepsy, falls, suicides, transport-related injuries, and interpersonal violence were also revealed.

The highest death rates were in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, which are also three of the four countries with the highest level of alcohol consumption, according to the report.

"In countries that have less resources, less health care, less services, in addition you have more risk of dying from an alcohol-related problem," says Monteiro.

Monteiro says only about 30% of doctors in the United States ask patients about their drinking and have a conversation about it.  She suggests people who think they may have a problem do a screening intervention at home.

Another study, published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, looked at alcohol as it related to memory loss and found throwing back two and a half drinks per day speeds up memory loss in middle-aged men.

Researchers followed 5,000 men and 2,000 women for 10 years and found those who had 2.5 drinks of wine, beer or hard liquor daily accelerated memory loss by up to 6 years. This was not seen in those who do not drink or who drink moderately.

"The present study confirms that moderate alcohol consumption is probably not deleterious for the brain. However, heavy alcohol consumption, even in midlife, might have consequences on cognitive functioning at older ages," says study author Severine Sabia in an email. She is a research associate from the Whitehall II study at University College London.

The study found alcohol consumption higher than 36 grams per day (which is equivalent to 2.5 12 oz. beers ,for example)  in men was associated with accelerated decline in all cognitive functions, but in women there was only weak evidence that heavy drinking was associated with a faster decline. The study did not include a high number of female drinkers so researchers weren't able to find a statistical relevance in how much women drink in relation to cognitive decline. But Sabia says they did find for women "abstinence from alcohol was associated with faster decline in the global cognitive score and executive function."

"What this shows in men, heavy drinking is not good, the role of moderate drinking in cognitive health remains an open-ended question," says Emory neurologist Dr. William Hu. "Most people want to hear drinking a glass of wine a day is good for your brain. This study is inconclusive on that," he adds.

When asked about how alcohol effects brain function, Sabia says "heavy alcohol consumption is associated with higher risk of vascular disease which, in turn, may increase the risk of cognitive impairment. Furthermore, heavy alcohol consumption has detrimental short and long-term effects on the brain, including direct neurotoxic effect, pro-inflammatory effects, and indirect impact via cerebrovascular disease and vitamin deficiency."

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