Study Shows Alzheimer's Hits Earlier in Smokers, Drinkers

Heavy smokers and drinkers develop Alzheimer's years before people who don't drink or smoke as much, a new report says.

The study, presented Wednesday at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in Chicago, suggests heavy drinking and smoking might be accelerating damage to the brain, which could lead to Alzheimer's.

But the flip side of the study is a message of hope: People who cut back or stop habits such as excessive smoking or drinking might reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer's at a younger age. Instead of struggling with forgetfulness at age 59, such people might delay symptoms until age 65 or 70, says researcher Ranjan Duara of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

Duara and his colleagues examined 938 people ages 60 and older with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, a disease that causes confusion, memory loss and behavioral problems. The team asked family members to provide patients' histories of drinking and smoking. Then the team identified patients who had APOE4, a gene that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's late in life.

The researchers found that patients who had a history of heavy drinking (more than two alcoholic drinks a day) developed Alzheimer's nearly five years earlier than people who didn't drink that much. Patients who smoked a pack a day or more developed the disease 2.3 years sooner. Patients who had the APOE4 gene developed the disease three years earlier than those who didn't have it.

People with the gene who smoked and drank too much developed the disease nearly nine years earlier (average age 69) than those without those risk factors (average age 77).

People can't do anything about a family history of Alzheimer's, says Denis Evans, a researcher at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. But, he says, they can reduce modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer's. He points to other studies that have demonstrated smoking is risky.

So for smokers, he says, the message is clear: Don't just cut back: quit.

But the research on alcohol and Alzheimer's suggests a message of moderation. Evans says research indicates that one to two drinks a day might even reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.

No one, including Evans, would recommend that people start to drink just to gain a potential health benefit. But people who already drink might be able to enjoy -- within limits.

"The best advice is probably to lighten up and have a drink a day -- but don't drink more than that," Evans says.

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