Be Mindful of How Alcohol Affects Memory and Aging

As you age, even moderate consumption can worsen problems with cognition, sleep and other brain-related functions.

If you’ve been celebrating the holidays with a little bubbly or other spirits, you may have noticed that you feel the effects of alcohol a little faster and a little more intensely than you did when you were younger. Your brain may not recover from alcohol’s effects as quickly as it did years ago, either. It’s not your imagination. It’s your age.

As you get older the question of how much alcohol is safe to consume becomes a more complicated issue. Alcohol can magnify the effects of ongoing cognitive decline. It can contribute to sleep disorders and other conditions that are more common among older adults. Yet despite years of research, there is still no definitive advice, other than the standard recommendation of no more than two drinks per day for men, and one for women.

“We know that, in general, drinking to excess—more than 21 drinks in a week for four or five years—is bad for brain health in most individuals, and that vulnerability to the brain effects of alcohol and to problem drinking seems to increase at middle age and beyond,” says Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD, a researcher on the brain effects of alcohol who is associated with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. “But it’s impossible to be more specific than that. There are so many factors and conditions that influence alcohol-related brain damage, including the person’s age and level of education, gender, genetic background and family history of alcoholism.”

She suggests talking with your doctor about your alcohol consumption if you have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or a more serious cognitive disorder. And, of course, if you believe you have a drinking problem, discuss it with your doctor and ask about ways to change your behavior. “The bottom line is be sensible,” says Dr. Berman. “Alcohol consumption is an aspect of brain health that should be carefully considered.”

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