Alzheimer’s and Alcohol – My Secret Fears

author_picFrom wine served with dinner to an evening cocktail and the traditional champagne toast, alcohol is often a complement to holiday celebrations. According to the National Institutes of Health, a standard drink can contain more alcohol than people realize. Those “standards” can sometimes be dangerous for individuals taking one or more medications on a daily basis. “Older people are at a particularly high risk for drug-alcohol interactions because they often take more medications than younger adults do.” High consumption of alcohol has clear detriments, including being linked to increased risk of breast cancer. Yet, “the effect of light to moderate consumption has not been so well qualified,” according to researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. That may raise questions about consumption and the onset of other diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s.

Today’s guest blogger delves into some of the research on those questions and provides a refreshingly honest look into fears that arose in watching her loved one battle Alzheimer’s disease.  Melissa Kluska is the Public Relations Coordinator at St. Jude Retreats, a treatment center providing a non 12-step alternative to conventional alcohol and drug rehabilitation.

Melissa’s Secret Fears —

The last 5 years of my aunt’s life she had no recollection of who I was. Bound to a hospital bed, I agonized as I watched her stare at me from across the room like I was a ghost. I always felt my face flush when she asked me, “Who are you?” I never knew what to say to that question. How do you even prepare yourself to answer that?  How do perfectly healthy people suddenly become ill, when they’ve always had everything pulled together?

My aunt lived to be almost 95 and was always the epitome of excellent health, until she developed dementia of the Alzheimer’s type and her life took a drastic turn for the worst. She was a special person in my life and I truly enjoyed spending time with her, visiting when I was a child. She was  always extremely thoughtful and loved spending time with the family. She was a bargain shopper and would bring everyone a gift when she visited, even if it was from a yard sale. Now as an adult, I appreciate those special things about her, and that’s how I want to remember her — not the way she spent the last few years of her life.

After her sad passing, I came to fear Alzheimer’s disease, constantly thinking about what I could do to prevent it. Could my current health habits impact me down the road? Even though I am only in my late 20’s, I still think about my future health.  I think we all do, at some point . There has been research that raises some concerns for those who frequently binge drinking. That type of unhealthy drinking behavior may lead to possible memory consequences later in life. Oftentimes, we find those drinking behaviors prevalent with college students, or military personnel who come home and find themselves binge drinking — perhaps in response to being abstinent for so many months.

Researcher, Dr. George Grossberg is the Samuel A. Fordyce Professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and past president of the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry and of the International Psychogeriatric Association (IPA) came to this conclusion after studying binge drinking behavior patterns: “[We] looked at binge drinking, or having four or more drinks at one sitting. Patients were evaluated in 2002 and followed for eight years. The study [indicated] that people who had one binge-drinking episode per month were 62 percent more likely to show memory problems than those who didn’t binge drink.  Those who had two or more binge-drinking episodes were 147 percent more likely to have these problems than the non-bingers.  So one episode per month was bad, but two episodes were more than two times worse.”

I admittedly, on occasion, binged on alcohol in my college days and now moderately drink wine and other types of alcohol. I began wondering if substance use plays any role in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. In researching, I was shocked to discover several studies showing that consistent, light to moderate drinking may actually reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Moderate drinking for women is considered slightly less than for a man. On average, “moderate” is either a glass of wine or beer per day for women, and two of these drinks for men.  

Now this does not mean that elderly adults should run out to the liquor store and start drinking; out of those studied, the ones who were always abstinent from alcohol and began drinking moderately actually slightly increased their risk. It’s also noteworthy that a study in the Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment reported that out of “more than 365,000 participants, moderate drinkers were 23 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.”

In conclusion, I don’t believe that changing my alcohol habits will increase my risk for the disease. The more research I do on alcohol, indications are that it does provide some benefits to the body. So perhaps it’s not as dangerous as our culture makes it out to be, but again everything in moderation is key — which is true whether you’re talking about chocolate, wine or shopping.

Alzheimer’s disease is agonizing for anyone to watch a loved one suffer through; I witnessed it first hand. Appreciating the special things about my aunt has helped keep the treasured moments fresh in my mind. Given the current research, there is no need to be concerned about your daily glass of wine. Life is too short to not indulge in things that make you happy, every once in awhile. Create lasting memories with the ones you love, for whatever amount of time you may have with them.

Keeping with tradition here at Hope Matters, the team members at St. Jude Retreats provided us with a whimsical fact this morning. Melissa is about to embark on a celebration of life today — as she awaits the birth of her beautiful baby, gratefully ending 39 weeks of pregnancy! 🙂

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