THURSDAY, Sept. 22, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- As people age, the harmful effects of heavy drinking can take a toll on key brain functions, such as memory, attention and learning, a new study shows.

Researchers led by Adam Woods, of the University of Florida's department of aging and geriatric research, asked 31 men and 35 women to complete a series of comprehensive brain tests.

The volunteers were divided into groups based on their level of alcohol intake: heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers or non-drinkers.

About 53 percent of the study group had a lifetime history of some period of alcohol dependence, the team said, and 21 were considered current heavy drinkers.

The test results of the latter group were compared to the results of the 45 non-drinkers and moderate drinkers. Woods' team tracked brain functions such as attention, learning, memory, motor function, verbal function and thinking speed.

The study found that older people who were heavy drinkers had lower scores on tests of so-called cognitive function -- worse learning skills, memory and motor function.

A lifetime history of alcohol dependence was also linked with worse learning, memory and motor function, the researchers reported. These people also had reductions in their attention or executive function (which includes reasoning and working memory), regardless of their age, the findings showed.

"It is not surprising that lifetime alcohol dependence would have long-term adverse effects on cognition [thinking], nor is it surprising that heavy alcohol use in older adults would also be associated with worse cognition," said Dr. Marc Gordon, chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. He reviewed the new findings.

Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein directs geriatric education at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y. She agreed with Gordon that "the findings should not come as a surprise, since it is well known that alcohol at any age, from birth to death, is toxic for brain cells."

And she pointed out that the effects of heavy drinking may be especially hazardous for the elderly, many of whom are taking several medications.

"Medication regimens can be negatively affected by the use of alcohol," Wolf-Klein said. For this and other reasons, "use of alcohol is better avoided altogether in older adults -- or at least reported and discussed openly with their primary care doctors," she said.

The study was published Sept. 22 in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about the health effects of alcohol.