Early Alcohol Use Will Result In Memory Loss Later In Life

Researchers found that heavy alcohol use in males during midlife paves the way to memory loss from dementia later in life.

I thought that this would be a good topic to review the effect of alcohol in general. Alcohol is a known cell poison, yet cardiologists keep on referring to the beneficial effects of that 1 glass of wine per day that will prolong your life. I will attempt to explain these diverse effects, where small amounts are supposed to be good for you while high amounts can be very damaging.

Review of the effects of alcohol

50% of the world population drinks alcohol, 10% to 20% have chronic alcoholism (Ref.1).  Just recently a Guardian news study was released showing that an astounding 25% of Russian men die before reaching the age of 55, compared to only 7% of men in the United kingdom and less than 1% of men in the US. The study looked at the effects of consuming large amounts of vodka.  There are about 10 million chronic alcoholics in the US. Chronic alcohol consumption leads to 100,000 deaths every year in the US. More than 50% of these deaths are from traffic accidents, the rest from medical problems caused by alcohol (Ref.1). Most of the alcohol gets detoxified through the liver cells and is metabolized into acetaldehyde. This involves the cytochrome P-450 system. That means that when a person also takes narcotics, sedatives or psychoactive drugs that are also metabolized through this liver enzyme system drugs and alcohol are taking much longer to be metabolized. This can lead to lethal overdoses that we hear about on TV all the time, hence the warning that you must not mix alcohol with drugs.

Early Alcohol Use Will Result In Memory Loss Later In Life

Early Alcohol Use Will Result In Memory Loss Later In Life

Alcohol is a cell and nerve poison. The most vulnerable organs in the body are the liver, brain, heart, pancreas, bone marrow and stomach. So, here are a number of conditions caused by drinking alcohol:

a)    Anemia: When a person drinks heavily and regularly anemia shows up in a blood test. Alcohol has a toxic effect on the bone marrow, which interferes with the production of red blood cells. But certain vitamins required by the bone marrow to manufacture red blood cells are often also missing in the diet of an alcoholic, which contributes to anemia as well.

b)    Cirrhosis of the liver develops in 10% to 20% of heavy drinkers. With cirrhosis part of the liver cells get replaced by fibrotic tissue and in advanced cases this can lead to a hepatic coma and death. Others are developing alcoholic hepatitis. This is an inflammation of the liver with fever and jaundice where the skin and eyeballs turn yellow. It is associated with severe abdominal pain.

c)    Gastritis: Alcoholic gastritis is common, but often undetected. The affected individual may just have stomach pains for a few days, or vomit food and/or blood in addition. With continued use of alcohol it may turn chronic. Alcoholic gastritis can turn into gastric ulcers with massive bleeding that often lead to death.

d)    Pancreatitis: The pancreas is a particularly vulnerable glandular tissue, which gets damaged by regular alcohol intake and with chronic alcohol intake gets partially replaced by fibrotic tissue causing the feared and painful chronic pancreatitis. This is a condition with vomiting and severe abdominal pains that can be unrelenting.

e)    High blood pressure, seizures, dementia, depression, heart irregularities and nerve damage:

You may ask yourself how all of these conditions would be reasonably under one heading. The heading for this is “nerve damage”. Let me explain: The sympathetic nerve is very sensitive to alcohol toxicity and when the sympathetic nerve fibers are damaged, you will develop high blood pressure. You see your physician, get blood pressure medication, but the pressure is difficult to control, if you continue to drink alcoholic beverages. It does not make sense to just add blood pressure pills and hope that this will cure your problem. Seizures are due to direct nerve damage in the more sensitive parts of the brain, which will cause these areas to produce extra electrical activities, which we call seizures. Again, just treating with anti-seizure medications is not the solution. Avoidance of alcohol is the other part of the treatment schedule. Dementia from heavy alcohol use is due to direct nerve atrophy in the brain. Our brain shrinks normally 1.9% to 2.8% per decade, depending on which research papers you read. But in the presence of heavy drinking the frontal lobe of the brain is particularly vulnerable to brain shrinkage.

As this publication shows, mild and moderate drinkers did not suffer more frontal lobe shrinkage than abstainers, but heavy drinkers had a 1.8-fold higher risk of frontal lobe shrinkage on average when compared to abstainers. It was calculated that alcohol had contributed 11.3% to that frontal lobe shrinkage.

The rest of the toxic effect on the nerve tissue explains why depression would develop. The frontal brain contains most of the serotonin producing nerve cells. When serotonin-producing nerve fibers get damaged, the body does not produce enough serotonin to prevent depression from setting in; GABA producing cells often also get damaged, which causes anxiety. It’s not good enough to just prescribe anxiolytic drugs to which the patient will get addicted. The whole person needs to be treated, and abstinence from alcohol has to be part of the program.

Heart irregularities (atrial fibrillation, ventricular fibrillation) can be life-threatening complications due to the toxic effect of alcohol on the nerve fibers within the heart muscle. Emergency physicians are aware of the connection of these conditions to alcohol consumption. Some people’s hearts are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than others. The most common cause of temporary atrial fibrillation is excessive alcohol intake (holiday heart) according to Ref. 2.

Finally there is the effect of alcohol on nerves in the body. This explains that heavy alcohol consumers can come down with painful pins-and-needles sensations in their hands and feet or with numbness or loss of muscle strength. When the parasympathetic nervous system is affected embarrassing incontinence or constipation can result. Erectile dysfunction in men is also very common. Viagra and continuing to drink is not the solution.

f)      Gout: This painful formation of uric acid crystals in joints can be precipitated in sensitive individuals by consuming alcohol in combination with eating large helpings of beef. There may be a history of gout in the family. Treatment for this is to refrain from alcohol and avoid foods that are leading to uric acid production when ingested.

g)    Cancer: When the body detoxifies alcohol in the liver, the breakdown product is acetaldehyde, which is a known cancer producing substance. A whole array of cancers are known, which come from heavy, chronic alcohol consumption: cancers in the mouth, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver and colorectal cancer have all been linked to excessive alcohol intake.

h)    Cardiovascular disease: heart attacks and strokes can be caused particularly by binging; it is thought that binging makes platelets from the blood more sticky so they clump together and cause blood clots, which in turn leads to heart attacks and strokes.

i)      Infections: Alcohol weakens the immune system, which is another effect on the bone marrow similar to causing anemia, except that this is the toxic effect on the white blood cells and lymphocytes. Heavy alcohol consumers are more prone to pneumonia, to HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and tuberculosis.

Cardiology view of preventative alcohol

Despite all of these hair raising toxic effects cardiologists have painted the rosy picture that 1 glass of wine for women and 2 glasses of wine for men per day will prevent heart disease. What is the true story here?

Ref.2 points out that there are about 100 prospective studies that confirm that there is an inverse relationship between mild to moderate alcohol consumption and “heart attack, ischemic stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes”. It describes further that the reduction of risk in these various studies was persistent and consisted of a 20% to 45% risk reduction. Using blood tests investigators have found that this is because of an increase of HDL cholesterol, reducing blood clotting, making platelets less sticky and reducing inflammation as evidenced by a reduction of the C-reactive protein. Further research has pinpointed that it is the phenols and resveratrol that are contained in alcoholic beverages that are responsible for the beneficial effects. The bad news is that three glasses of wine or more do the opposite, so does binge drinking. Unless you are extremely disciplined and never increase your allowed limit (1 drink for women, 2 drinks for men) you will CAUSE heart disease rather than PREVENT it (Ref.2). Some people have a family history of breast cancer or colon cancer and they should avoid alcohol altogether; also people coming from alcoholic families should avoid alcohol.


Where does this leave us with regard to prevention of heart attacks, strokes and hardening of the arteries in the legs (peripheral vascular disease)? If you are disciplined and stick to the limits, you could prevent 20% to 45% of cardiovascular risk. The brain study mentioned in the beginning of the blog would also confirm that there was no difference between dementia or brain shrinkage when mild to moderate drinkers were compared to abstainers over 10 years. What is not told by the wine industry is that the same effects that prevent cardiovascular disease in mild to moderate drinkers can also be achieved by natural means: exercising regularly will raise your protective HDL cholesterol; taking ginkgo biloba, flax seed and omega-3 fatty acids thins your blood and the platelets are getting less sticky; omega-3 reduces inflammation and resveratrol elongates telomeres making you live longer. At the A4M conference in Las Vegas in December 2011 there were three speakers who pointed out that even small amounts of alcohol will poison mitochondria of your cells and interfere with normal hormone action. This was enough to make me join those who abstain alcohol completely. One thing has not yet been investigated in long-term studies, namely how small effects of alcohol may affect the body over several decades and over an entire lifetime. Despite all the promises of interest groups that red wine is a trendy drink for those interested in heart health, the fundamental long-term studies are missing. What does a guy do with a healthy heart and a brain that is not functioning too well? I just do not want to be the guinea pig in that worldwide study.

More information on alcoholism: http://nethealthbook.com/drug-addiction/alcoholism/


  1. Kumar: Robbins and Cotran: Pathologic Basis of Disease, Professional Edition, 8th ed. © 2009 Saunders
  2. Bonow: Braunwald’s Heart Disease – A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine, 9th ed. © 2011 Saunders

Last edited Nov. 7, 2014


World Health Day 2013, Focus on Hypertension

In the US high blood pressure causes 348,000 American deaths per year, in the world its death toll amounted to 9.4 million every year. This is unfortunate as high blood pressure is an illness, which can both be effectively treated and prevented. Uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension) causes heart attacks and strokes, can cause kidney failure, heart failure and blindness. You control blood pressure with lifestyle changes and/or medication,  and these risks go away.

The age standardized death rate  (Ref. 1) for both sexes in the US for heart disease is 80.5 per 100,000 and for strokes 25.4. In Canada these rates are 66.2 and 22.9; in Germany 75.0 and 31.2; in Italy 51.7 and 34.9, in Japan 31.2 and 36.7. The death rates from cardiovascular disease per 100,000 people in the same countries is as follows: in the US 172.2, in Canada 130.7, in Germany 200.2, in Italy 153.5 and in Japan 107.1.

There are obviously significant differences in these countries, which I will discuss further below.

On the occasion of the World Health Day, which was celebrated on 7 April 2013 to commemorate the founding of the WHO in 1948, with the topic of high blood pressure the World Health Organization has edited a PDF publication of 155 pages entitled “Global Atlas on cardiovascular disease prevention and control” (Ref.1, be patient, loads slowly). In it prevention and treatment for high blood pressure are discussed in detail. This text points out that there has been a remarkable decline in death rates from heart attacks and strokes (collectively called “cardiovascular disease”) between 1981 and 2000 in the United Kingdom. A thorough analysis of this showed that 58% of this decline was due to risk factor reduction in the whole population (reduction of smoking and heavy alcohol consumption, reduced salt intake, combatting physical inactivity and reduction of saturated fat intake). The other 42% of the decline in cardiovascular disease is due to treatment by a physician. So, it is clear from this that the majority of mortality prevention comes from the patient, less than 50% comes from the treating physician. However, it is important that physicians will educate their patients to cut out risk factors themselves in order to prevent hypertension.

World Health Day 2013, Focus on Hypertension

World Health Day 2013, Focus on Hypertension

Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure

In the past it was thought that most cases of high blood pressure would be due to “essential hypertension”, a term saying “we don’t know what causes high blood pressure”. Many physicians still use this term. Only a small amount of cases were considered “secondary” hypertension where the causes were known (e.g. kidney disease, hormonal imbalance, pregnancy). But in the meantime research by Harvard University and other research institutions has shown that there are a number of specific causes that contribute to high blood pressure, either alone or in combination.

Here are the commonly known causes: too much salt in our diet; we tend to not eat enough vegetables and salads; we like to sit in cars, in front of the TV or in front of the computer (physical inactivity). Many people still smoke, although tobacco is known to cause high blood pressure and lung cancer. Too much alcohol is known to cause hypertension as well. So the following steps will prevent high blood pressure :

  1. consuming less salt
  2. eating a balanced diet (preferably the DASH diet)
  3. engaging in regular physical activity
  4. avoiding tobacco use
  5. avoiding harmful use of alcohol (more than 2 oz. or 60 Grams per day)

Diabetes is known to worsen the risk for heart attacks and strokes and increases the risk of high blood pressure as well. So, some hidden risk factors for high blood pressure related to diabetes are as follows: a high fasting blood sugar; obesity; food with too much fat, too much sugar and too many starches (not enough complex carbohydrates).

What Can Be Done To Reduce Death Rates From High Blood Pressure?

As Canada is one of the countries where the death rate from strokes and heart attacks is lower than in the US or Germany, I like to point out some of the reasons for this. I practiced medicine in Canada for many years. The “Canadian Hypertension Education Program” have been guidelines for practicing physicians to follow providing effective screening and treatment of high blood pressure. Cardiologists at various continuing education conferences have promoted this. At my office I had a hypertension recall program where my staff called every patient with high blood pressure into the office every 3 months. We would review the home-measured blood pressure readings from the patient (recorded in a little booklet). I also took the blood pressure of the patient and so did my staff on the patient’s arrival. We reviewed the blood pressure medication and reviewed the possible side effects. The patient was also told what to do, if the blood pressure would be higher than normal (possible adjustments of the medication at home). I also encouraged my patients with regard to the life style issues (the 5 points mentioned above). Over the years the number of patients who developed heart attacks or strokes declined, as one would expect.

A recent review in the Canadian Family Physician mentions that there is room for improvement regarding the Canadian statistics. As mentioned above Italy and Japan are doing better with regard to mortality from heart attacks and strokes compared to Canada. We have a health care system in Canada that is available to every Canadian resident and funded by provincial taxes. In this system patients do not have to pay for office visits (although they pay for it indirectly through taxes). For the patient with high blood pressure it means that there is a system in place, which helps prevent cardiovascular disease and treats high blood pressure effectively. In my opinion the home recording of self-measured blood pressure readings at least once per day with a home blood measure monitor is vital to encourage the patient to be engaged with regard to his/her blood pressure problem.

Newer Findings About High Blood Pressure

For years physicians did not know where high blood pressure came from. In the last few years research has shown that nitric oxide plays an important role in preventing high blood pressure. It is produced by the lining of your arteries (by the so-called “endothelial cells”) and is the natural artery relaxer.

Foods that produce nitric oxide in the body are spinach, kale, red beet, cabbage varieties and other vegetable greens. These foods, which are also contained in the DASH diet, and regular exercise will stimulate the lining of your arteries to produce nitric oxide, which prevents high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. If all these measures and the above recommendations to prevent high blood pressure do not help, it is time to treat it. As already indicated above it is important that the patient who has been identified as needing high blood pressure treatment with medication, takes the medicine regularly (called ”compliance”). By keeping the blood pressure reading below 120/80 you prevent your risk of getting a heart attack, a stroke, heart failure or blindness from broken retinal vessels. If the patient develops any side effect from the medication, it is important to see the physician about this right away. It may be that the medication has to be adjusted or altered.

Nitric oxide can be taken as a supplement (Neo40), which allows the endothelial lining to be regenerated as indicated in this interview with the inventor, Dr. Nathan Bryan from the University of Texas Health Center in Houston.

The older we are, the more likely it is that our blood pressure will be high. As this link shows, 2 out of 3 people above the age of 60 in the US have systolic hypertension (the upper value of the blood pressure is elevated). As we age, it appears that the lining of the arteries do no longer produce the required amount of NO (nitric oxide) to prevent high blood pressure and prevent hardening of the arteries. So, it would be wise to adopt the Mediterranean diet with lots of vegetables, spinach, kale, bok choy, Swiss chard and others to boost your NO production, but still measure your blood pressure regularly. If you do not have a home blood pressure monitor, go to a pharmacy that allows you to check your blood pressure for free. If it is above 120 over 80 seek the advice of a health professional. You can find more information in Ref. 1.

In essence, what World Health Day 2013 asks us to do is to pay attention to your blood pressure and make sure it is normal.

More on high blood pressure: http://nethealthbook.com/cardiovascular-disease/high-blood-pressure-hypertension/


Ref. 1)  http://www.nethealthbook.com/articles/cardiovasculardisease_hypertension.php

Last edited Nov. 6, 2014