Study of civil servants finds middle-aged non-drinkers face higher dementia risk

Study of Whitehall staffers shows benefits of moderate alcohol consumption in middle-age

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By Jim.Dunton

02 Aug 2018

Research on lifestyle choices that has tracked the behaviour of around 9,000 civil servants has found a link between moderate alcohol consumption in middle age and a reduced incidence of dementia.

A paper in the latest edition of the British Medical Journal is the latest published findings of data from University College London’s long-running Whitehall II study – also known as the “stress and health study”, which began in the 1980s and covered staff from a range of departments.

The paper, by an Anglo-French team of researchers indicates that those civil servants who drank moderately in middle age were less likely to develop dementia than either tee-total counterparts or those who drank to excess.


The study collected data on 9,087 civil servants who were aged between 35 and 55 in the mid-to-late 1980s and among other things categorised them by their drinking habits.

The latest follow-up found 397 recorded cases of dementia. Using data on alcohol consumption from the early years of the study, researchers found that abstinence from alcohol in mid-life was associated with a higher risk of dementia – the same was true for the civil servants who drank more than 14 units of alcohol a week.

In an accompanying BMJ editorial commentary Sevil Yasar, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the United States, said the study contained a number of significant findings.

She said that it was “intriguing” that abstaining from wine in particular was a cause  of “significantly increased risk of dementia” among the study cohort, but also underscored that not all of those in the study group who did not drink alcohol could be described as healthy.

“Abstainers were mainly women, had lower education and physical activity, were obese, and had a higher prevalence of cardiometabolic risk factors, all associated with an increased risk of dementia, which could explain the differences,” she said. “However, adjustment for confounding factors did not alter the findings.”

Yasar said the findings raised the question of “a possible protective effect from moderate alcohol consumption” that was further supported by findings of an increased risk of dementia “observed only in those who abstained from wine”.

She added that the next steps for research should be confirmation of the findings in other long-term studies, which would need to be “funded exclusively” by government agencies to avoid bias.

Earlier this year other Whitehall II research found a link between declining brain function that coincided with retirement from work.

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