Older alcoholics who manage to achieve abstinence can have mental functioning on par with other older adults, a small study suggests.
Researchers found that as a group, elderly alcoholics who'd been abstinent for at least 6 months performed as well as older non-alcoholics on standard tests of thinking and memory.
The findings, reported in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, suggest that older adults who solve their drinking problem can emerge with their cognitive function intact.
The results do not mean, however, that years of heavy drinking do no harm to the brain, the study authors stress. Instead, they suggest that alcoholics who survive to old age with relatively good health may be a hardier lot whose brains are intrinsically more resistant to the damaging effects of alcoholism.
Well, not that part so much. This part.
Specifically, he told Reuters Health, abstinent alcoholics in this study tended to have larger craniums than the comparison group of non-alcoholics, and those with larger craniums -- a marker of a larger brain -- generally performed better on tests of cognitive function.
Fein and colleague Shannon McGillivray speculate that the older alcoholics had a relatively high "brain reserve capacity" -- a reference to the brain's ability to tolerate damage and allow a person to remain cognitively intact for a longer period.
"Our results show that it is possible for some elderly abstinent alcoholics to either have escaped the neurodegenerative effects of alcohol abuse on cognitive function, or to have fully recovered any cognitive function that was lost during active alcoholism," Fein said.
However, he pointed out again that the findings do not imply that all older drinkers who quit will have normal cognitive abilities.
Instead, Fein and McGillivray conclude, "cognitively healthier alcoholics, with more brain reserve capacity, may be more likely to live into their sixties, seventies, or eighties with relatively intact cognition, and to volunteer for studies such as this."