HEIDI DOUGLASS | h.douglass@unsw.edu.au

Dr Louise Mewton, UNSW Scientia Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA), UNSW Sydney, has been awarded close to $600,000 to uncover exciting new avenues in dementia prevention. The world-first research, funded by a Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration (DCRC) World Class Research grant, aims to evaluate whether cognitive recovery is possible after treatment for risky alcohol consumption in older adults.

Evidence indicates that about a third of dementia risk may be preventable by engaging in healthy lifestyle activities and that a healthy lifestyle may also offset an individual’s genetic risk for dementia. 

However, despite alcohol being considered the strongest modifiable risk factor for dementia when compared with other risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, its use is rarely targeted in dementia prevention programs. 

Meanwhile, alcohol prevention programs, which have the potential to have benefits in terms of dementia risk reduction, rarely focus on older adults. 

“Currently, no disease modifying treatments for dementia exist,” said Dr Mewton.

"Risk reduction is a fundamental strategy for reducing dementia cases and delaying the onset of cognitive decline and there is evidence to suggest that cognitive recovery is possible after treatment for alcohol use disorders in later life", said Dr Mewton.

It was once thought that low levels of alcohol use might be protective against cognitive decline. Recent studies have shown that even low levels of alcohol use – 1 to 7 standard drinks per week – are associated with cognitive decline in older adults. Alcohol use and related problems are increasing among older adults, particularly the ‘Baby Boomers’. The most recent national data indicates that one in five Australians in their 60s exceed NHMRC single occasion risky drinking guidelines of 5+ drinks on a weekly basis.  Meanwhile, 12% of Australians in their 60s currently drink in this pattern daily or almost daily which is higher than another age group.

“Given that alcohol use and related harms are increasing in older adults, there is a critical need for alcohol prevention and brief intervention programs that are both scalable and effective when targeting this population,” said Dr Mewton.

"Our study aims to determine whether an online alcohol brief intervention adapted for older adults can slow cognitive decline and reduce alcohol consumption in older risky drinkers", said Dr Mewton.

Co-Director of CHeBA, Professor Perminder Sachdev, said that despite the pervasive cognitive deficits associated with alcohol use disorders, there is extensive evidence to suggest that alcohol-related brain impairments are at least partially reversible. 

“Whether cognitive recovery is possible for older adults who are consuming alcohol in highly prevalent patterns has not previously been investigated,” said Professor Sachdev.

“This research has the potential for meaningful advancement in our knowledge of dementia risk reduction and significant capacity for the development of effective prevention programs,” said Professor Sachdev.