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The more alcohol people drink, the faster their cells appear to age. Researchers from Japan’s Kobe University Graduate School of Medicine found that alcoholic patients had shortened telomeres which placed them at greater risk for age-related illnesses.

Telomeres are the pieces of DNA that act as protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Chromosomes, which protect our genes, get shorter every time a cell divides. Once a chromosome gets too short, it dies. Many studies have shown that shortened chromosomes are associated with the diseases of aging, especially cardiovascular disease, dementia, and diabetes.

“Telomeres, the protein caps on the ends of human chromosomes, are markers of aging and overall health,” said Naruhisa Yamaki, M.D. But aging isn’t the only cause of shortened telomeres.

“Our study showed that alcoholic patients have a shortened telomere length, which means that heavy drinking causes biological aging at a cellular level,” he said.

Yamaki and his co-authors recruited 255 study participants from alcoholism treatment services at Kurihama National Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan: 134 alcoholic patients and 121 age-matched controls or non-alcoholics, ranging in age from 41 to 85 years old. DNA samples, as well as drinking histories and habits, were collected from all participants.

“We also found an association between telomere shortening and thiamine deficiency (TD),” said Yamaki. Thiamine is a B vitamin.

 “TD is known to cause neuron impairments such as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Although how exactly TD can cause neural impairments is unclear, it is well known that oxidation stress causes telomere shortening and, thus, it is possible that oxidation stress may also cause neuron death.”

According to a study from King’s College London, one in five seniors drinks too much, which could have devastating effects on baby boomers. “As the baby boomer generation become seniors, they represent an ever increasing population of older people drinking at levels that pose a risk to their health,” said lead author Dr. Tony Rao.

“This study shows the need for greater awareness of the potential for alcohol related harm in older people.”