Background: To date, there is a wealth of literature describing the deleterious effects of active alcoholism on cognitive function. There is also a growing body of literature on the extent of cognitive recovery that can occur with abstinence. However, there is still a dearth of published findings on cognitive functioning in very long-term abstinence alcoholics, especially in the elderly population.
Methods: The current study examines 91 elderly abstinent alcoholics (EAA) (49 men and 42 women) with an average age of 67.3 years, abstinent for an average of 14.8 years (range 0.5 to 45 years), and age and gender comparable light/nondrinking controls. The EAA group was divided into 3 subgroups: individuals that attained abstinence before age 50 years, between the ages 50 and 60 years, and after age 60 years. Attention, verbal fluency, abstraction/cognitive flexibility, psychomotor, immediate memory, delayed memory, reaction time, spatial processing, and auditory working memory were assessed. The AMNART and cranium size were used as estimates of brain reserve capacity, and the association of all variables with alcohol use measures was examined.
Results: Overall, the EAA groups performed comparably to controls on the assessments of cognitive function. Only the abstinent in group before 50 years of age performed worse than controls, and this was only in the domain of auditory working memory. EAAs had larger craniums than their controls. This effect was strongest for those who drank the longest and had the shortest abstinence. Such individuals also performed better cognitively.
Conclusions: Our data showed that elderly alcoholics that drank late into life, but with at least 6 months abstinence can exhibit normal cognitive functioning. Selective survivorship and selection bias probably play a part in these findings. Cognitively healthier alcoholics, with more brain reserve capacity, may be more likely to live into their 60s, 70s, or 80s of age with relatively intact cognition, and to volunteer for studies such as this. Our results do not imply that all elderly alcoholics with long-term abstinence will attain normal cognition.