London - If you’re a middle-aged man looking forward to a couple of pints tonight, you might want to stop at one.
Men in their 40s who drink just two pints of beer a day risk accelerating mental decline by up to six years by the time they reach retirement age.
In the first long-term study of its kind, scientists tracked more than 5,000 British men for 20 years and found heavy drinking was behind premature damage to the memory.
Moderate drinking, defined as less than 2.5 units a day – roughly a pint of beer or a large glass of wine – was found to have no effect on memory, reasoning or problem solving.
But men who drank more than 4.5 units a day – less than two pints or two large glasses of wine – suffered a deterioration in their ability to recall information, the equivalent to an extra six years of ageing.
And the decline of the brain’s ‘executive function’ – which includes attention span and reasoning skills – was hastened by an extra year and a half. The study, carried out by scientists at University College London, involved tracking the drinking habits of 5,054 civil servants over a ten-year period until the late 1990s, and then testing their mental ability over the next ten years until 2009.
Dr Séverine Sabia, lead author of the study, said: ‘Much of the research evidence about drinking and a relationship to memory and executive function is based on older populations.
‘Our study focused on middle-aged participants and suggests that heavy drinking is associated with faster decline in all areas of cognitive function in men.’
The participants, who were in their mid-40s when they were recruited, were quizzed three times during the first decade to establish how much, how often, and what they were drinking.
The second stage was to analyse their cognitive function.
Each man was assessed three times over the next ten years, starting at age 56 on average and ending when they were 66.
Those classed as heavy drinkers performed significantly worse than the light drinkers, with a memory decline equivalent to an extra six years over the decade.
The heavy drinkers also fared worse in experiments testing their verbal fluency and mathematical ability.
The results showed their decline in general cognitive ability and executive function was accelerated by a year and a half, compared to those who did not drink at all.
Some 2,099 women also took part in the experiment. Those who drank more than two units a day tended to show an accelerated cognitive decline, but researchers said the results were not strong enough to be statistically significant, and said they could not draw any conclusions.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, concluded that ‘heavy alcohol consumption in mid-life is likely to be harmful for cognitive ageing, at least in men’.
Dr Sabia admitted that the research relied on self-reported drinking, so ‘some participants may have underestimated their consumption’.
Dr Simon Ridley, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, welcomed the study ‘as one more reason to stick to any New Year’s resolutions to cut back on alcohol’. - Daily Mail