Even Moderate Drinking Can Increase the Risk of Dementia

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Just when you bought that favorite Merlot to share with friends, new research published in the journal Aging and Mental Health may have dropped a wet blanket on your happy hour.

This research study suggests that drinking 4 glasses of wine or 4 pints of beer per week raises the risk of dementia. 

Scientists recently discovered that even moderate drinking may impact short-term memory as well as spatial awareness (the way we perceive the space surrounding our bodies). Failing to limit alcohol consumption could see these issues worsen and increase dementia risk. 

The study, conducted at King’s College in London, was spearheaded by Dr. Tony Rao, a psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience in research of alcohol use in older people. It compares advice from the UK's National Health Service (NHS) to limit alcohol to a maximum of 14 drinks per week. This is equivalent to six pints of 4 percent beer, six small glasses of 13.4 percent wine or seven double shots of 40 percent spirits.

Data from over 15,000 people aged 50 and up were evaluated and tracked for two years. Amount of alcohol ingested -- including quantity and frequency -- was analyzed and tests were done to measure cognitive skills in the subjects. 

Individuals reaching “risky levels” of alcohol consumption (equal to 8 units per week), experienced a bigger decline in short-term memory and spatial awareness during the study than the other participants, thought even small declines in mental acuity could lead to the diagnosis of dementia. 

Rao notes that none of the subjects suffered from dementia at the beginning of the research, but that those who drank at higher levels were more apt to show cognitive decline. 

Heavy or binge drinkers are not the only ones at risk. It’s possible to go over the threshold by drinking two units of alcohol per week -- which equals 4 glasses of wine or 4 pints of beer.

Rao also noted that these results may quell the myth that alcohol could be good for the brain. He maintains, "Using tests to pick up this cognitive impairment early can protect the brain and prevent further decline into dementia."

Dr. Rosa Sancho of Alzheimer’s Research UK supports this idea, stating, "This research provides more sustenance to the advice for people to drink in moderation."

It's possible to prevent some kinds of dementia if individuals get early intervention, reduce alcohol intake, or quit drinking entirely. Reducing alcohol consumption could also improve public health. After all, alcohol intake is known to negatively impact other parts of the body. For example, it can increase the risks for hypertension, heart disease, liver disease, and cancer.

Want to help your clients reduce their alcohol consumption? Drop by the post Not-So-Tipsy Tips to Reduce Alcohol Consumption.

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


  1. Rao R, Creese B, Aarsland D, Kalafatis C, Khan Z, Corbett A, Ballard C. Risky drinking and cognitive impairment in community residents aged 50 and over. Aging Ment Health. 2021 Nov 12:1-8. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2021.2000938. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34766529.
  2. de Visser RO, Nicholls J. Temporary abstinence during Dry January: predictors of success; impact on well-being and self-efficacy. Psychol Health. 2020 Nov;35(11):1293-1305. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2020.1743840. Epub 2020 Mar 27. PMID: 32216557.
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