In recent years there have been many studies suggesting that moderate alcohol consumption, generally considered two or fewer drinks per day, is good for the heart and good for the body in general.
Alcohol abuse, especially binge drinking, has also made new of late. In general, when we consider binge drinking, we think of young men and women of college age. A sort of right of passage. However an article published by the Telegraph (UK) titled, “Binge-drinking causes up to one in four dementia cases,” brings some disturbing news. One in four cases of dementia due to alcohol? Actually, that shouldn’t surprise us.
For the most part, drinking is accepted by society - even encouraged. It’s deemed social and sophisticated. Certainly most people can drink responsibly and will suffer no harm. However, a certain percentage of the adult population could be considered functioning alcoholics. These are “responsible” people who binge drink often. For many it’s a daily even. I would hazard a guess that most of these people would put up a fuss if they were called alcoholics, because they go to work and pay their bills. So, what’s the problem?
The problem, according to this British study, is that these people may be playing with fire - or rather playing fast and loose with their brain cells. The article says, “Binge-drinking could be responsible for up to one in four of Britain’s 700,000 dementia cases.”
Some psychiatrists in Britain say that they are seeing people in their 40s who are experiencing serious memory problems due to heavy drinking. “The research, published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, concluded that between 10 and 24 per cent of all cases of dementia could be caused by alcohol-related brain damage.”
The researchers say that this study should serve as a wake-up call to people in their 40s. Dementia is not just a disease of the elderly. Cognitive problems can start much earlier, and as much as 25 percent of that is thought to be alcohol related.
There’s a find line, when it comes to alcohol. When some studies show alcohol can be good for you, in moderation, but others show a link between heavy drinking and mental decline, people have to rely on their honesty with themselves, their families and their doctors about how much they actually drink.
What I’ve seen too often, especially with elders, is that denial is so strong that people truly think they are drinking a “healthy” amount of alcohol, while they are gradually increasing the size of their glass of wine, or the strength of their mixed drink, or even the number of drinks.
Maybe, before their spouse died, they were a social drinker. However, grief and loneliness gradually led to self-medicating with increased alcohol consumption. The effect of that extra glass of wine or that extra strong drink, begin to show. Pretty soon the adult children begin to wonder about Dad and his slurred speech. Older bodies aren’t as efficient as younger ones, and maybe Dad isn’t eating as well since Mom died. The damage to the body mounts. Soon, Dad’s forgetfulness gets serious.
Tests show that Dad is in the early stages of dementia. When asked about his drinking, he says what is expected of him. He claims to have “a couple of drinks in the evening.” Everyone knows that isn’t right, but no one wants to confront Dad. He may do better if he quit his drinks and received some of the new medications for dementia. But he doesn’t feel he has a problem.
Would it have helped if the adult children had been more vigilant? Hard to say. Parents are adults. Adults make choices. If alcoholism runs in the family, that creates another risk factor. But loneliness is a red flag. If you have an elder, or even an adult sibling, who seems to be hitting the bottle a bit too hard, try to talk with the person. Maybe they just need counseling to get over some rocky ground in their life and your reaching out and educating the person on alcohol and dementia may help.
If the family alcoholic gene has kicked in, you may face angry denial. There may not be much you can do. Sometimes a family intervention works. Other times it doesn’t. But if you can make a case for saving the person’s brain, do it. Clue the doctor in on the real amount of alcohol that Dad consumes. Maybe the doctor can talk Dad into getting treatment for his alcoholism, and then start him on dementia medication.
The take-home message here is don’t be careless about alcohol for yourself or your elder. If you see a parent who seems to be getting forgetful, see if you can spot a drinking (or for that matter a drug) problem. Do what you can to get them help before dementia begins or is made worse by chronic drinking. If you are worried that you are dependent on your “couple of drinks to relax,” seek help before you find that dementia is already taking hold of your brain. Here, honesty is clearly the best policy.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.