If you’re worried that drinking alcohol could raise the risk of dementia as you get older, a large new study from South Korea can provide some insights. That starts with the idea that in general, cutting down on alcohol is a good idea.
“Maintaining mild to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a decreased risk of dementia, whereas heavier drinking increases the risk of dementia,” the study’s first author, Dr. Keun Hye Jeon, told NPR.
One part of the study’s conclusions seems to have surprised many people: It found that while dropping from heavy to moderate alcohol consumption lowered the risk of dementia, so did the “initiation of mild drinking.”
Study sees a complex interaction of alcohol and health
“Those who drink alcohol within the recommended guidelines are not advised to stop on the grounds of reducing the risk of dementia,” Jeon said, “although cutting back on alcohol consumption may bring other health benefits.”
Compared to people who didn’t change their alcohol habits, Jeon and her colleagues found that two groups showed a heightened risk of dementia: drinkers who increased their consumption, and people who quit altogether.
“Quitters from any level of alcohol consumption showed higher risk of all-cause dementia compared with those who sustained the same level of drinking,” according to the research paper.
Much has been made of that aspect of the findings, as people try to parse whether it might represent a true cause and effect — and a possible new data point in their own decisions about drinking. But the researchers warn that the higher dementia risks of people who quit drinking in their study “are suspected to be primarily attributed to the sick quitter effect, which is defined as a person quitting (or reducing) a certain hazardous activity because of health issues.”
In other words, they may have quit drinking because their health worsened, rather than their health worsening because they quit drinking.