Skip to main content


Investigating the association between chronic heavy drinking and dementia

Posted on February 22nd 2018

PenCLAHRC researcher, Dr Iain Lang, has commented on a new study published in The Lancet Public Health, which provides evidence to suggest that people who drink excessively are putting themselves at serious risk of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Lead by Michaël Schwarzinger, MD, the study used the French National Hospital Discharge database to examine over a million people diagnosed with dementia between 2008 and 2013. More than a third – 38% of the 57,000 cases of early-onset dementia – were found to be directly alcohol-related and 18% had an additional diagnosis of alcohol use disorders. Alcohol use disorders were concluded to be a major risk factor for onset of all types of dementia, particularly early-onset dementia.

Subsequently, the researchers suggest that ‘screening for heavy drinking should be part of regular medical care, with intervention or treatment being offered when necessary.’ Additionally, policies should be developed with the aim to reduce heavy drinking in the general population.

The study builds upon Iain’s collaborative work with Dr David Llewellyn of The University of Exeter Medical School. Their 2014 paper, entitled ‘History of alcohol use disorders and risk of severe cognitive impairment: a 19-year prospective cohort study.’ aimed to assess the effects of a history of alcohol use disorders (AUDs) on risk of severe cognitive and memory impairment in later life.

In a commentary piece in the Lancet Public Health, Iain, alongside the University of Exeter’s Professor Clive Ballard, acknowledges that Schwarzinger’s study is ‘immensely important’. They suggest that it ‘highlights the potential of alcohol use disorders, and possibly alcohol consumption, as modifiable risk factors for dementia prevention.’

In spite of this, however, Iain and Clive highlight several issues that still need to be addressed, including the relationship between alcohol use disorders and related comorbidities:

‘Alcohol use disorders are probably associated with poor diet and lifestyle, smoking, cardiovascular comorbidity, lower adherence to medical treatments, depression, and potentially social isolation.’

They suggest that understanding the significance of these risk factors will help to develop better prevention strategies for people with alcohol use disorders.

However, although many questions remain, Iain and Clive remark that Schwarzinger’s evidence ‘is robust’ and recommend that ‘we move forward with clear public health messages about the relationship between both alcohol use disorders and alcohol consumption, respectively, and dementia.’ 

They conclude by suggesting that: ‘We might want to consider the extent to which the growing prevalence of dementia worldwide might be curbed by reductions in population-level alcohol consumption.’

Iain and Clive’s commentary has been referenced in national press, including in The Guardian, Medscape Medical News, Medical News Today, and the IOL. Iain was also interviewed about the study on BBC Radio Devon. Listen to Iain in conversation with Gordon Sparks here.

To find out about PenCLAHRC’s own ongoing dementia research, visit the webpage.