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Alcohol and dementia: you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t

August 8, 2018

Sometimes I wonder whether there’s much difference between medical studies and opinion polls. Both use small samples of the population to draw conclusions that seemingly apply to the rest of us. And both appear to be wrong on a regular basis.

In the case of opinion polls that predict the results of elections, many turn out to be no more accurate than the predictions of ancient sages who examined chicken entrails.

As for medical studies, or rather those who publicise them, we seem to lurch from one conclusion to another completely different one and modulate our behaviour accordingly. Diet advice particularly comes to mind, but we seem to be particularly concerned about the prospect of our going gaga in old age, and in what behaviour increases or decreases the likelihood.

I take personally the results of the latest study on drinking and dementia.

It draws the believable conclusion that we have a better chance of developing dementia if we drink over 40 units of alcohol per week than if we are so-called moderate drinkers, which by that criterion, seems to indicate that we can safely drink several bottles of wine every week. Despite the fact that we might get extremely merry on a regular basis, we have a good chance of retaining our senses into our 70s and 80s – when we’re not temporarily losing them that is.

But it seems that if you’re teetotal, your chances of developing dementia are greater than they would be if you were a moderate drinker. Yes, you read that right. Abstinence is the path to oblivion.

In order to explain why I’m less than delighted, here’s a little background on my relationship with alcohol.

Aside from a brief flirtation with scrumpy – pickled rats and all – in my mid teens, my first serious encounter came on a trip to Frankfurt in the summer before university. An excess of apfelsaft (the German equivalent of scrumpy) gave me my first experience of being really drunk. The full monty: whirling pits, projectile vomiting and crushing hangover.

Thereafter I took to beer, and in my twenties, when I could afford it, an evening at the pub would involve downing five or six pints of a soapy brew favoured in my native Birmingham known as Double Diamond. It was preferable to Brew Eleven and Ansells Bitter, which were even more noxious.

Then I went to Saudi Arabia where, as most people know, booze is against the law. As a result, unless you were fabulously wealthy and could afford proper stuff smuggled in to the country via diplomatic bags and other devious means, you made your own wine or beer, or drunk the product of other people’s garages. Alternatively, there was siddiqui, a locally distilled spirit that resembled aviation fuel.

After years of drinking this gut-rot, my consumption gradually tailed off, because I could no longer stand the evil hangovers that destroyed the day after. By the time I came back to the UK, I was virtually teetotal. This was the reason why, with a wife and small child in tow, I willingly took on the role of designated driver for parties.

And since then, apart from the occasional beer or glass of wine, very little alcohol has passed my lips. And I don’t miss it.

I suspect that a few people who don’t know me well suspect that I have dark drinking past, maybe that I was once an alcoholic. Or even that I have secretly embraced Islam. The truth is much simpler. As I drank less and less, the effects of the occasional session became more pronounced. I was never an aggressive drunk. My reaction to alcohol was to fall asleep, which is rather boring for those around me. These days, it only takes a single glass of wine for the eyelids to start drooping.

There was one consequence of my abstinence. I’ve become a bit of a prig when it comes to others letting it all hang out. Getting pissed the odd night in your twenties is fine, but there’s something rather sad and undignified about middle-aged drunks.

I, on the other hand was able to see my sober life as a virtue. I still think it’s rather pathetic if you rely on an artificial stimulant to make you the life and soul of a party.

But now, it seems, if I’m to avoid an old age of dribbling dementia, I shall have to change my ways. I must drink. At least 14 units a week, which roughly translates as a glass of red wine a day. My wife will no doubt celebrate. She has never been an excessive drinker, but she does enjoy the odd glass of wine. So we shall get mellow together, and no longer will she have to endure my holier-than-thou face as she pours herself a modest drop in the evening.

But wait. The study, which was reported in the British Medical Journal, is based on a sample of nine thousand civil servants. Civil servants, gawd bless’em! Since when can these worthy pushers of paper and inhalers of photocopier fumes be said to representative of the population as a whole? Do the same survey on pig farmers, truck drivers, estate agents and the idle rich, and I might start paying serious attention.

Which leads me to wonder whether this is just another example of the Grand Old Duke of York syndrome. We get marched up to the top of the hill, and then marched down again.

Thus it was when we were urged to stop eating butter and smear Flora over our toast, only to be told later on that margarine was no better for your health than butter.

There’s also the question of what kind of alcohol we’re talking about. I can confidently predict that anyone who spends a lifetime drinking 40 units a week of siddiqui is unlikely to live long enough to suffer dementia. The same probably goes for Brew Eleven and modern variants such as Stella Artois. As for scrumpy drinkers, you’d be hard put to tell the difference between advanced alcoholism and dementia – until the autopsy reveals the state of the person’s liver, that is.

On reflection, therefore, to hell with it. I’ll take my chances and carry on doing – or not doing – what I’m doing right now. At least I don’t have a face that looks like the crater of a volcano – patches of crimson and ready to blow, capillaries straining at the leash.

If dementia comes, I reserve the right to change my mind. My offspring would then be free to help me drink to oblivion. I would hope to enjoy the process until I’m no longer able to distinguish between scotch and scotch egg puree.

Until then, I shall continue be a self-righteous git, watching with a gimlet eye as others spend their evenings of alcoholic jollity, laughing at stuff nobody in their right minds would find funny. No wonder I have no friends.

From → Social, UK

  1. A superb piece of writing, as usual. As to the issue dealt with, please forgive me for making a (fully qualified) suggestion. Wait until the dementia gets a bit of a grip, then have a bash at fighting it by drinking at least two bottles of decent wine a day. I supply this suggestion not as a doctor, but as an ex-professional journalist from an era of hackery when you wouldn’t just have been considered quite deranged if you consumed less alcohol, but would have been fired for dereliction of duty, and of duty free. Thanks for the sheer joy of reading your work Steve. I think I’ll cerebrate it with a pint of real ale or three, at 5.09am here in Hastings as I write. I’ve never lacked for dedication to my professional duties and incompetencies, even in semi-demented retirement 🙂


    • Thanks Ronnie. I may well take your advice. As for dementia, I’m not sure which is better: semi-demented retirement or demented semi-retirement. I think the latter describes me best.

  2. In light of this new medical evidence from the BMJ, I think that good Harvey’s Bitter etc, should be made available on free NHS prescription for the elderly and apprentice demented Steve. Prevention is always better than cure.

    • Ah. Never tried Harvey’s. Perhaps I should consider Hastings for my retirement home!

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