If you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, it’s natural to want to improve your quality of life and overall well-being. For some, this leads to the question of whether drinking alcohol can affect Alzheimer’s or make its symptoms worse.
It's important to become familiar with research on the potential effects of alcohol on Alzheimer’s symptoms and treatment. Knowing the effects alcohol may have can help you make the best decisions for yourself.
The data on Alzheimer’s disease and drinking is not cut-and-dry. As a result, it is difficult to determine the exact impact of alcohol on the disease.
Some research has suggested that drinking a moderate amount of alcohol each day may protect a person against developing Alzheimer’s disease. (“Moderate alcohol consumption” is defined as two drinks or fewer per day for men and one drink a day for women.) One study, which looked at more than 365,000 people worldwide, found that moderate drinkers were up to 23 percent less likely to develop memory problems or Alzheimer’s compared to nondrinkers.
However, if you drink more than a moderate amount of alcohol — especially if that’s binge drinking — you may actually increase your chances of developing Alzheimer’s. Further, binge drinking (heavy drinking in a short period of time) can cause you to develop the condition both more severely and earlier (during midlife) than when onset typically happens for nonbinge drinkers. This is because binge drinking causes chemicals in the brain to behave differently than they normally do, with the end result being a higher risk of forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
According to one 2016 study of some 360 people with Alzheimer’s, people who drank eight or more drinks per week (defined as “heavy drinkers”) experienced cognitive decline that was significantly faster than others who drank between 0 to 7 drinks per week (defined as “abstainers or moderate drinkers”). Also, the moderate drinkers did not experience faster cognitive decline than the abstainers, which suggests that some alcohol consumption may be acceptable for people with Alzheimer’s.
Alcohol may cause Alzheimer’s and hasten its progress because it makes it harder for your brain to clear itself of amyloid plaques (abnormal lesions), which are known to cause Alzheimer’s disease. Damage to this brain function may be key to understanding exactly how alcohol and Alzheimer’s are connected.
The type of alcohol you consume may also affect your Alzheimer’s symptoms. In the 2016 study mentioned above, drinking hard liquor — as opposed to beer or wine — was found to make a person’s condition progress more quickly.
People diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease should not take medications that do not mix well with alcohol. However, not all medications used to manage Alzheimer’s symptoms or to treat the disease itself interact poorly with alcohol. That means it’s the responsibility of every person with Alzheimer’s (and their caretakers) to get accurate information to make informed decisions about drinking alcohol.
Belsomra (suvorexant) is a medication that causes drowsiness and is often given to people with Alzheimer’s to help them sleep at night. Mixing the drug with a depressant like alcohol is not recommended. The warning is directed to both people who have consumed a small amount of alcohol several hours before taking it, and for anyone who is — or has ever been — a heavy drinker. Drinking alcohol while taking suvorexant can increase your chance of experiencing the drug’s serious side effects. Those side effects include liver problems or lung and breathing difficulties.
Suvorexant is one of the most common Alzheimer’s medications that you should not mix with alcohol. However, there may be more drugs that interact problematically with alcohol. If you aren’t sure whether alcohol is compatible with a certain medication, it’s best to refrain from drinking until you have more information from your doctor, pharmacist, or neurologist.
You may decide it's best to refrain from drinking entirely to avoid the possibility of accelerating the decline of your brain function or cognitive function. However, other people with Alzheimer’s may want to drink because they enjoy it and feel comfortable with moderate drinking.
If a person with Alzheimer’s wants to drink or continue to drink, they should have open discussions about alcohol with their health care team. There are many factors to talk about, such as the type of alcohol and amount you drink. Discuss the recommendations your neurologist has already made specific to your medical history. Your team will be able to alert you of any potential interactions between alcohol and your Alzheimer’s medications, and they can help ensure you are approaching your alcohol consumption safely.
Some people may feel they can’t control their drinking, have negative feelings when they don’t drink, or believe that their alcohol consumption is negatively impacting their life. These may be signs of alcohol use disorder. If you one feel as though you can’t limit how much you drink or you continue drinking even if it’s hurting you or others, it’s time to talk to the doctor. Your health care team is your best resource for getting medical advice when it comes to limiting the negative effects alcohol may have on your health and well-being.
If you or someone you care for has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it can help to talk to others who understand. On myALZteam, the online social network for people with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones and caregivers, more than 83,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with Alzheimer’s.
How has alcohol use in conjunction with Alzheimer’s affected you, a loved one, or caregiver? What have you learned from those experiences? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a discussion on myALZteam.