It's not just the direct effect of booze. Alcoholics' brains get messed up. These neuropsychological deficits continue even after an alcoholic dries out. How long do they last?
George Fein, PhD, and colleagues studied 25 men and 23 women who were alcoholics. Their average age was 47, ranging from 35 to 57. They hadn't had a drink for an average of 6.7 years, ranging from six months to 13 years of sobriety. The researchers also studied the same number of age- and sex-matched volunteers who never drank much, if at all.
"We found that the cognitive and mental abilities of middle-aged alcoholics who had been abstinent for six months to 13 years are indistinguishable from those of age- and gender-comparable nonalcoholics," Fein says, in a news release.
Still Lost in Space?
The recovering alcoholics may have one lingering problem. A close look at their test scores suggested that they might have been a bit worse at spatial orientation than their nonalcoholic peers. This is the kind of ability used to read a map or to assemble things.
While the recovering alcoholics did not do worse on any specific spatial test, their combined spatial test averages were lower those of the nonalcoholics. While this does not prove that they have a problem, Fein and colleagues are reluctant to give them a clean bill of health. That's because spatial orientation is a brain function particularly affected by alcoholism.
Fein and colleagues warn that their study wasn't able to prove that sobriety eventually overcomes the effects of drinking. For one thing, they did not know for sure that their alcoholic volunteers actually had mental deficits to begin with.
Moreover, age has a lot to do with the long-term effects of alcohol on the brain. Those who start earlier or who wait until old age to stop likely suffer more brain damage.
The researchers are currently comparing the effects of sobriety on alcoholics who stopped drinking before the age of 50, from age 50 to 60, and after 60. They expect to find that older brains will recover much more slowly.
"We're not saying that you will have full recovery [of mental function] if you stop drinking in your 50s or 60s," Fein says. "We are saying that these people stopped drinking earlier, and they appear to have close-to-full recovery of function."
The study appears in the September issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
SOURCES: Fein, G. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, September 2006; vol 30: pp 1-7. News release, Stanford University School of Medicine.
By Daniel DeNoon
Reviewed by Louise Chang