Alcohol may be major factor in early-onset dementia, study suggests

French research finds heavy drinkers could be three times more likely to develop condition

Of 57,000 cases of dementia diagnosed before the age of 65, 39 per cent could be attributed to alcohol-related brain damage. Illustration: iStock

Heavy alcohol drinkers are putting themselves at greater risk of developing dementia, particularly early-onset dementia, new research states.

A French nationwide study into the effects of alcohol abuse disorders in more than one million adults diagnosed with dementia between 2008 and 2013 found that heavy drinkers could be three times more likely to develop the condition.

It said that chronic drinking could lead to “permanent structural and functional brain damage”.

The scientists who looked at 57,000 cases of early-onset dementia (before the age of 65) found that 39 per cent were alcohol-related while 18 per cent of these people also had a diagnosis of “alcohol use disorders”.


Some 3 per cent of all dementia cases were associated with alcohol-related brain damage.

The World Health Organisation defines chronic heavy drinking as consuming more than 60g of pure alcohol per day for men and 40g for women. This equates to about six or more standard drinks for men and four for women.

The study, published in the Lancet Public Health Journal, found that between 2008-2016, 1.1 million of the total 31.6 million people discharged from hospital had been diagnosed with dementia.

Over that same time period, 945,512 people were diagnosed with alcohol use disorders, the vast majority of which suffered from alcohol dependency.

Dr Michaël Schwarzinger, who lead the research, said heavy drinking also increased the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, atrial fibrillation and heart failure which in turn could lead to vascular dementia.

He added that smoking, depression and low educational attainment, which are also connected to chronic drinking, were also risk factors in developing dementia.

“Our findings suggest that the burden of dementia attributable to alcohol use disorders is much larger than previously thought, suggesting that heavy drinking should be recognised as a major risk factor for all types of dementia,” said Dr Schwarzinger. “A variety of measures are needed, such as reducing availability, increasing taxation, and banning advertising and marketing of alcohol, alongside early detection and treatment of alcohol use disorders.”

Prof Clive Ballard, from the University of Exeter Medical School, said the study was "immensely important" and underlined the urgent need to "move forward with clear public health messages about the relationship between both alcohol use disorders and alcohol consumption, respectively, and dementia."

Dr Sara Imarisio, of Alzheimer's Research UK, warned that even moderate drinkers were at risk of brain damage and said the French study had failed to reveal "the full extent of the link between alcohol use and dementia risk" as it only examined people admitted to hospital because of chronic drinking.

“Previous research has indicated that even moderate drinking may have a negative impact on brain health and people shouldn’t be under the impression that only drinking to the point of hospitalisation carries a risk.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast