The single biggest preventable risk factor for developing dementia is overuse of alcohol, according to major new study

A major Canadian observational study identified alcohol use disorders as the biggest risk factor for the onset of dementia. It’s also the most preventable factor, so people wary of early-onset dementia can avoid it by controlling their alcohol intake, reported a ScienceDaily article.

Implemented by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and published in The Lancet Public Health journal, the study took a very close look at the effect of alcohol use disorders. To this end, it canvassed the health records of more than a million French citizens.

The study included patients with mental and behavioral disorders or chronic diseases caused by chronic heavy drinking.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “chronic heavy drinking” is defined as the daily consumption of more than 60 grams of pure alcohol for men and 40 grams for women. WHO identifies alcohol consumption as the root cause of more than 200 diseases and injuries, including mental and behavioral disorders.

For their study, CAMH researchers viewed 57,000 cases of early-onset dementia, where the patient developed dementia before turning 65. They found that 57 percent of these cases were linked to chronic heavy drinking.

The significant association between chronic heavy drinking and dementia led the authors to suggest several actions that would reduce the burden of dementia attributed to alcohol. They believed screening, brief interventions for heavy drinking, and treatment for alcohol use disorders would be highly effective in curbing the onset of dementia.

“The findings indicate that heavy drinking and alcohol use disorders are the most important risk factors for dementia, and especially important for those types of dementia which start before age 65, and which lead to premature deaths,” remarked Dr. Jürgen Rehm, the co-author of the massive study and Director of the CAMH Institute for Mental Health Policy Research.

He warned that alcohol use disorders have been proven to reduce life expectancy by more than 20 years. He identified dementia as a major cause of death for people who suffered from alcohol-related disorders.

“Alcohol-induced brain damage and dementia are preventable, and known-effective preventive and policy measures can make a dent into premature dementia deaths,” Dr. Rehm proposed. (Related: Majority of people consider alcohol more harmful than marijuana, according to recent survey.)

More women suffer from dementia, but more men get early-onset dementia

Dr. Rehm and his team identified a major gender split for early-onset dementia patients. Women comprised the majority of dementia patients, but two out of every three early-onset dementia patients turned out to be men.

Other independent risk factors for the onset of dementia included smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and hearing loss. These factors are also linked to alcohol use disorders.

The data from the study imply that alcohol use disorders can increase the risk of dementia in more ways than one.

“As a geriatric psychiatrist, I frequently see the effects of alcohol use disorder on dementia, when unfortunately alcohol treatment interventions may be too late to improve cognition,” said Dr. Bruce Pollock, co-author and Vice-President of Research for CAMH.

Much like his colleague, Dr. Pollock advised treating the alcohol use disorder ahead of time before dementia takes over.

“Screening for and reduction of problem drinking, and treatment for alcohol use disorders need to start much earlier in primary care,” he said.

One limitation of the study was that it only covered the most severe cases of alcohol use disorder. The authors explained that they focused on cases that required hospitalization.

Patients are often reluctant to report alcohol-related problems due to social stigma regarding alcoholics. The correlation between alcoholism and dementia could be even higher than the study has shown.

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