A lot of factors can cause us to age more quickly, be it our environment, nutrition, chronic disease or exposure to toxic substances.
Along similar lines, alcohol and drug abuse contribute significantly to the aging process. A recent study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that the amount of alcohol consumed by the current generation of older adults exceeds that of its predecessors, a fact that has important implications for cognitive aging.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol and prescription drug abuse is a problem that affects up to 17% of adults over the age of 60. Insufficient understanding of the issue, a lack of research data, and physicians being overworked can cause health care providers to overlook substance abuse in elderly populations.
The fact that elderly people often have medical or behavioral disorders that resemble symptoms of substance abuse, such as depression or dementia can cause people in these populations to go undiagnosed and prevent them from getting the necessary help.
Cognitive Damage Due to Alcohol
Previous research has found that regular, excessive consumption of alcohol causes white matter loss in the brain, a reduction of brain volume and neuronal connections. But more than that, it has negative consequences for the brain’s normal function as addiction becomes a problem.
Chronic alcohol consumption leads to degeneration of the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous systems, according to the a study published in the journal Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences. It also starves brain cells of essential nutrients as a result of changes in metabolism.
Furthermore, alcohol has an adverse effect on the dopaminergic system, or in other words, the neurons that synthesize the release of dopamine. Eventually, the user needs more to achieve the same effect as tolerance is increased, but as doses increase, neuroinflammation and neural death can follow.
As a result, brain plasticity is reduced and heavy drinkers have been shown to possess enlarged ventricles and lower levels of gray matter. In examination of such evidence, scientists have concluded that alcohol abuse accelerates age-related conditions.
Looking at the aging brain specifically, research has shown that chronic, heavy alcohol consumption in older adults leads to alcohol-related dementia (ARD) a more severe version of cognitive decline. Furthermore, regular heavy drinking leads to degeneration and erosion of the protective covering of the corpus callosum, the thick band of nerve fibers that divides the brain into left and right hemispheres.
Drugs and the Brain
The elderly may not be a population typically associated with drug abuse, but it’s more common than many realize. One contributing factor to the lack of awareness is that seniors often have legitimate reasons for the use of multiple prescription drugs.
Drug abuse is a problem worldwide and accelerates aging and the progression of age-related diseases, according to a paper published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.
Biological mechanisms by which drugs accelerate the aging process are being established, but evidence points to adverse reactions to oxidative stress, excitotoxicity (damage to neurons due to overstimulation), and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Ultimately, these reactions lead to degeneration and neuronal cell death. People who are addicted to narcotics exhibit specific age-related biomarkers. In an effort to prevent premature death and cognitive decline in these populations, scientists are attempting to develop screening tools, risk scores and prognostic models for identifying those likely to suffer premature aging due to drug addiction.