Hazardous drinking is associated with lower executive functioning, which in turn is associated with heightened alcohol-related problems, according to new research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
“We were interested in this topic because there is a large range of drinking behaviors, with many people drinking over the recommended maximum amount in the general population, which could have health consequences,” said Cathy Montgomery (@cathymonty_psy), a reader in psychopharmacology at Liverpool John Moore’s University, who conducted the research along with first author Anna Powell (@Anna_Powell_PGR).
“Non-dependent drinkers can, and do, fulfil the criteria for harmful or hazardous levels of alcohol use similar to those with dependence,” Montgomery said. “This in turn has been associated with changes in neurocognitive function, which could affect daily functioning and result in increased alcohol intake or less control over drinking during a drinking episode and during abstinence.”
The study included 323 non-hazardous alcohol drinkers and 343 hazardous alcohol drinkers. The categorization was based on scores on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, a screening tool developed by the World Health Organization.
Participants in the study also completed an assessment of alcohol-related problems and a test of executive function, which measured factors such as strategic planning, organizational ability, impulse control, motivation, and empathy. The alcohol-related problems included negative impacts on financial, legal, physical, social and psychological issues. For example, participants were asked whether they had “been in trouble with the police due to your drinking” or whether they had “missed a whole day at work after a drinking session.”
The researchers found that hazardous drinkers tended to have poorer performance on the strategic planning, organizational ability, and impulse control subscales of the executive function test.
The findings provide evidence “that hazardous drinking results in self-reported impairment in memory and executive function,” Montgomery told PsyPost. “Hazardous drinkers also self reported higher levels of alcohol-related problems. In our analyses, the impairments in memory and executive function mediated the effects of alcohol on alcohol-related problems indicating that, as expected, reduction in executive function is related to higher levels of alcohol problems due to lower levels of control over drinking.”
As for the study’s limitations, Montgomery noted that “this was a questionnaire study so relied on self-report. We would like to verify the existence of any changes to function with objective and neuroimaging indicators of cognitive function. This study was also carried out in the United Kingdom during lockdown 1 of the COVID-19 pandemic, so there may have been higher levels of drinking, in addition to lower feelings of executive control that were not necessarily related to the effects of alcohol.”
“This study was used to inform which neurocognitive functions might be important for reducing alcohol-related problems in both dependent and non-dependent hazardous drinkers,” Montgomery added. “The program of research that we have developed is currently investigating this in clinical and non-clinical samples.”
The study, “Subjective executive function deficits in hazardous alcohol drinkers“, was authored by Anna Powell, Harry Sumnall, Cecil Kullu, Lynn Owens, and Catharine Montgomery.