When most people hear the term binge drinking, a visual of a young, carefree, 20-something year old likely comes to mind or a memory of your former self of days gone by. Though according to many recent studies, there is an uptick in binge drinking in older American adults. With the rate of dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnoses, the way alcohol intake affects brain health is more than a cause for concern, the results are alarming. There is a correlation between long-term alcoholism and binge drinking – memory does not remain the same.
Aging Population, Substance Use Disorder Rising
During the economic downturn of 2008 that took its toll on the American people and their financial stability, baby boomers and seniors were hard hit as the retirement they looked forward to quickly evaporated into not enough. As many local restauranteurs and commercial real estate experts expected diminishing crowds at happy hours, reality turning those hard times was surprising. Happy hours were booming as many patrons sought the relief from stress that socialization combined with drinking alcohol on special could provide.
Unfortunately, as the markets rebounded, excessive drinking behaviors remain the same. And now more than 29.6 million Americans are putting their health at risk due to overconsumption of alcohol.
The Mind Says Yes, the Body Says What Are You Thinking?
The human body doesn’t process three glasses of wine the same way in a 62-year old man compared to when he was 28 years young. If you’re sober, congratulations. If you include alcohol in your life, whether a light, moderate or heavy drinker, once you hit about 40 years of age, you might notice a shift in how your body and mind reacts after drinking. In fact, you might notice that your tolerance level distinctly drops. What you used to be able to “handle” is far different than it is now. There’s a good reason for that.
As we get older, the amount of muscle in our bodies is lessened compared to the amount of fat. In addition, our liver cannot metabolize alcohol as efficiently as it used to. As a result, we feel the alcohol more quickly and it stays in our systems longer. Couple this with the likelihood of adding prescription medication to health regimens and alcohol can worsen the effects.
Memory Fades After Binge Drinking
What you experience after a night of binge drinking is indicative of what long-term alcohol abuse does to the brain. After the hangover wears off, especially if you’ve been drinking to the point of blacking out, you’ll come around and not remember where you were, what you said and who was there with you.
Alcohol hampers cognitive thinking but the consistent practice of binge drinking will increase the rate that the brain shrinks. Normally a natural process of aging, brain volume will decline but more so with alcohol abuse. It is this decline that instigates memory loss and diminished cognitive ability, fueling researchers to find answers in its cause and effect to brain health, longevity or failure.
Alzheimer’s Risk from Binge Drinking
Alzheimer’s and dementia diagnoses are on the rise. The aging populations have something to do with it but so does alcohol use disorder. More and more people are suffering from early-onset dementia, a brain disease normally seen in the elderly but comes about much earlier in people under 65 years of age.
In a landmark study conducted in France, researchers monitored the effects of alcohol use disorders in participants with co-occurring disorders (mental illness with alcoholism) or those with other chronic health issues that could be linked to alcohol abuse. Focus was given to the 57,000 people in the study who were diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Of them, 57 percent had a history of heavy drinking, with men outpacing women by 65 percent.
Dr. Jurgen Rehm, the co-author of the study, stated that alcohol use disorders, on average, shorten mortality rates by 20 years or more, with dementia as a leading cause of death. Famed guitarist Malcolm Young, of rock band ACDC, died in 2017 at the age of 64 due to early-onset dementia. Yes, he had a long history of alcohol abuse.
Adolescent Binge Drinking Creates Serious Risks for Memory-Related Illness
The younger a person begins binge drinking, the more harm to the brain. But in an unlikely chain of medical events, there may be a breakthrough in how to repair the damage done.
Alzheimer’s Drug Shows Promise in Repairing Brain Damage from Teenage Drinking
There’s a parallel between how binge drinking affects memory and learning in adolescents and how Donepezil, an Alzheimer’s drug helps patients with brain disease. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, responsible for cognitive thinking and memory, is compromised when drinking alcohol. Donepezil works to increase acetylcholine – restoring this part of brain function.
But there are more benefits directly related to brain connectivity. Duke University researchers found that Donepezil tested in mice caused the regrowth of brain cell branches in the brain’s hippocampus, a center for learning and memory abilities. Conversely, Alzheimer’s slowly turns off brain cells permanently.
For those who begin to drink at a young age, alcohol turns off brain cells in the hippocampus. The findings in the Duke study show that Donepezil repairs the damage done from binge drinking. This could provide the medical community and addiction rehab facilities a way to restore brain health in those who have suffered the loss of memory and learning abilities due to heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder. The drug does not reverse the harmful effects of binge drinking to the mind but could help those in alcohol treatment recover and reintegrate into normal life easier.
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