Moderate Drinking Can Be Good for the Aging Brain

December 15, 2014

Men and women who drink moderately in older age may have better memory than those who abstain from alcohol, a new study shows. The findings suggest that moderate alcohol consumption late in life may have beneficial effects on the brain.

The study, from researchers at the University of Texas and other universities, looked at 660 men and women age 60 and older who were free of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. They were part of a large and ongoing study, the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort, that looked at how various lifestyle factors can impact health.

The study participants completed detailed questionnaires about their drinking habits. They also underwent detailed tests of memory and thinking skills, as well as MRI scans to measure their brain volume.

The researchers found that adults who drank lightly, no more than six alcoholic drinks a week, performed better on tests of episodic memory. Episodic memory is the ability to recall the details of past events, such as when or where something happened.

Moderate drinkers, those who drank no more than one or two drinks a day, were also found to have larger volumes in their hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for memory and thinking. In diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the hippocampus shrinks, setting the stage for loss of cognitive skills.

Drinking levels did not impact overall mental abilities. But the findings, published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may benefit the brain later in life.

The study’s lead author, Brian Downer, of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said that in this study, alcohol consumption during midlife did not impact later cognitive functioning. But he noted that older adults who continue to drink moderately into old age may be healthier in general than those who have to stop drinking because of various medical issues.

Other studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption may be good for the aging brain and could be linked to a lower dementia risk. Experts aren’t sure why moderate alcohol consumption helps the brain, though it may reduce inflammation, which has been tied to Alzheimer’s, heart disease and other ills. It may also promote blood vessel health throughout the body, including in the brain.

Moderate alcohol consumption is typically defined as no more than one drink a day for women and one to two drinks daily for men, and no more than 7 to 14 drinks per week. A drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, a 12-ounce beer or 1.5 ounces of vodka or other spirits.

Research has consistently shown that heavier drinking can be bad for the brain. A study of middle-aged British men found, for example, that drinking more than two-and-a-half drinks a day can, over time, speed memory loss by up to six years. Other studies have shown that people who drank more than three to five drinks a day had impaired memory and a higher risk for dementia than moderate drinkers. Alcohol abuse can also take a serious toll on the liver and other vital organs.

Nondrinkers should not take up drinking to stave off Alzheimer’s, experts say, since the brain benefits are likely modest, and some former teetotalers may drink to excess.

The traditional Mediterranean diet, which includes moderate amounts of red wine along with heart-healthy foods like fish, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, has been linked to a lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers have also reported that imbibing a daily glass of wine or other alcoholic drink may slow the progression to Alzheimer’s in people with mild cognitive impairment, a form of memory loss that sometimes precedes the disease.

By ALZinfo.org. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Downer B, Jiang Y, Zanjani F, Fardo D. “Effects of Alcohol Consumption on Cognition and Regional Brain Volumes Among Older Adults.” American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias, Oct. 2014.


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