Reducing Drinking Reduces Risk of Dementia, or Maybe Not. No One Really Knows

(I posted the screed below on Facebook this morning, but thought I’d repeat it here for those who may not have caught it in their feed. I’ve also updated it with the frankly cringe-inducing perspective offered by my friend and fellow writer Pete Brown.)  

Articles like this, in which some dread disease — in this case dementia — is noted to be possibly offset by a change in lifestyle — in this case the cessation of drinking — drive me nuts. Yes, I admit that I have a vested interest in the popularity of alcohol, zero medical expertise and a healthy fondness for beer, wine and spirits, but come on! Every single story I come across like this is filled with qualifications and scary sounding pronouncements, and all too little in the way of factual absolutes. From this story alone:

  • “Middle-aged people should go teetotal to reduce the risk of dementia” (Reduce by how much? What’s the risk in the first place?)
  • “…the public should be advised that there is ‘no safe level of alcohol consumption'” (Just like there is no safe level of driving for avoiding traffic accidents, no safe level of exercise for avoiding heart failure, no safe level of sugar consumption for avoiding cavities…)
  • “Research has found that one third of all Alzheimer’s disease cases can be linked to lifestyle factors –such as exercise, obesity, smoking and alcohol.” (So what role does alcohol play? Can it be offset by regular exercise? Is smoking worse?)
  • “The new Nice advice says drinking any alcohol can increase the risk of dementia, disability and frailty…” (“Can,” but not necessarily “does.” Just like me walking to the other room “can” increase the risk of me stubbing my toe.)

My point is not that people should ignore all sound medical health advice, but that articles about studies filled with “can” and “may” and “could” are not really helpful in the greater scheme of things. Does drinking increase the risk of certain diseases or conditions? Probably. Is that increased risk offset by other mitigating factors, such as stress reduction, healthy diet and regular exercise? From what I’ve read on the subject, quite possibly. But even if not, running a story on how a lifestyle change “may” help to “reduce” the risk of something or other is hardly helpful.

Illustrating well the inanity and utter uselessness of such articles is another article offered up by Pete Brown shortly after I posted my diatribe. In his comment, Pete noted that another, directly contradictory report spawned this article only two days earlier. So beer drinking will either save you from dementia or cause it…or is in fact a benign activity when practiced in moderation that will not on its own have a direct impact on whether or not you get dementia at all. My bet, btw, is on the last.

3 Replies to “Reducing Drinking Reduces Risk of Dementia, or Maybe Not. No One Really Knows”

  1. You forgot that the news media exists to get readers/watchers/listeners and the easiest way to get them is by scaring them. “If it bleeds it leads.” But the problem with these so-called “studies” is that “Studies Show Studies Don’t Show Much” (http://brookstonbeerbulletin.com/studies-show-studies-dont-show-much/). When they’re reported on, they’re usually taken out of context, as a stand alone rather part of a continuum of study on a particular subject, and the results taken as facts, which is what leads to such bad advice, not to mention they’re almost always mis-reported as propaganda to support specific agendas. My only problem with your rant is just how short it is.

  2. The first sentence of that other article (emphasis mine): “Regularly drinking beer COULD help slow dementia, research SUGGESTS.” Proves your point here nicely. Unfortunately, the nature of scientific research, where understanding data requires interpretation by humans who have agendas, precludes the isolation of absolutes. EXCEPT this one: scientific research is detrimental to the health of laboratory rats in very distinct and inarguable ways. After all the equivocating of all the research which is more contradictory than the internet itself, in the end, the lesson seems to be that you ought to live the life that makes you happiest. And don’t be a lab rat.

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