Drinking Alcohol, Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
Scientific medical research has demonstrated that the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages (beer, wine and spirits) reduces the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
Drinking alcohol in moderation is one of the strategies that can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in later life, according to a review of the research on how dementia can be reduced. Abstaining from alcohol and abusing alcohol are both risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia.
Reducing the risk of dementia would help contain health care costs and reduce the emotional burden of care giving. It would also promote enhanced quality of later life. See Moderate Drinking of Alcohol Reduces Dementia Risk
Following are summaries of relevant research studies.
A study published in Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that people with mild cognitive impairment who had up to one drink of alcohol a day developed dementia at an 85 percent slower rate than people with mild cognitive impairment who were teetotalers (abstainers or non-drinkers). See A Drink a Day May Delay Dementia
Research on 7,469 women age 65 and older found that those who consumed up to three drinks of beer, wine or liquor per day scored significantly better than non-drinkers on global cognitive function, including such things as concentration, memory, abstract reasoning, and language. See Moderate Alcohol Consumption & Better Cognitive Function in Women
A study of 12,480 older women over time found that those who consumed alcohol moderately on a daily basis were about 20% less likely than abstainers to experience poor memory and decreased thinking abilities as they aged. It didn't matter whether the women drank beer, wine, or liquor (distilled spirits). The positive effects of the alcoholic beverages were all the same. See Drinking Alcohol Good for Memory and Thinking
A study of about 6,000 people age 65 and older found that moderate drinkers of beer, wine or spirits had a 54% lower chance of developing dementia than abstainers. The research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). See Alcohol and Dementia
Researchers studied 7,983 people aged 55 of age or older over an average period of six years. Those who consumed one to three drinks of beer, wine or distilled spirits per day had a significantly lower risk of dementia (including Alzheimer's) than did abstainers. See Drinking Alcohol and Dementia/Alzheimer's Disease
A study of people who were at least 75 years old tracked their health for a period of six years. Researchers found that drinkers were only half as likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, as similarly-aged abstainers from alcohol. See Drinking Alcohol May Reduce Risk of Alzheimer's Disease
A study of older women found that those who drank alcohol in moderation (defined as consuming up to two drinks of beer, wine or spirits per day) performed better on memory tests than did abstainers. The performance memory tests included such things as remembering a story, route, hidden objects, future intentions and connecting random numbers and letters. In all cases, the group who drank alcoholic beverages scored better than those who did not drink. See Moderate Alcohol Drinking Helps Memory
A study of 1,018 men and women age 65-79 whose physical and mental health was monitored for an average of 23 years found that "drinking no alcohol, or too much, increases risk of cognitive impairment," in the words of the editor of the British Medical Journal, which published the study. See Drinking Alcohol Helps Brain Cognition
A long-term study of over 6,000 Britons established in 1967 found that consumers of beer, wine or spirits performed significantly better on tests of cognitive functioning than teetotalers. For example, abstainers were twice as likely as occasional drinkers to receive the lowest test scores. The beneficial mental effects of alcohol were found when a person drinks up to about 30 drinks per week, and increased with consumption. The researchers did not test the effects of higher levels of alcohol drinking.
Dr. Guy Ratcliffe, the Medical Director of the Medical Council on Alcohol, said that "this is a well-researched study, and it's important that information such as this is available so that people can make informed decisions about alcohol consumption." See Drinking Alcohol Improves Brain Functioning
Moderate alcohol consumption protects older persons from the development of cognitive impairment, conclude researchers who studied 15,807 Italians 65 years of age and older. Among the drinkers only 19% showed signs of mental impairment compared to 29% of the abstainers. See Drinking Alcohol in Moderation Reduces Cognitive Impairment
An 18-year study of Japanese American men found "a positive association between moderate alcohol intake among middle-aged men and subsequent cognitive performance in later life." Moderate drinkers scored significantly higher on the Cognitive Abilities Screening Instrument (CASI), which includes tests of attention, concentration, orientation, memory, and language. Both nondrinkers and heavy drinkers had the lowest CASI scores. See Moderate Drinking of Alcohol Improves Later Cognition
Moderate consumption of alcohol was associated with superior mental function among older women compared to abstaining according to a study of over 9,000 women aged 70 to 79 over a 14-year period of time. The women's mental function was assessed with seven different tests. After adjusting for other factors that might affect mental function, the researchers found that the women who drank in moderation performed significantly better on five of seven tests. They also performed significantly better on a global score that combined all seven tests. See Moderate Alcohol Drinking Beneficial to Mental Functioning
Over a thousand persons age 65 and older were studied over a period of seven years. The study took into consideration such factors as age, sex, education, depression, smoking, general mental status. Overall, light and moderate drinkers experienced less mental decline than did non-drinkers.
Alcohol might lead to better mental function by improving cardiovascular health, in turn leading to better blood circulation in the brain. It might also have a beneficial effect on the neurotransmitters or chemical messengers in the brain. See Drinking Alcohol and Mental Functioning
Two large studies in Australia of people age 20 to 64 found that moderate drinkers performed better than abstainers on all measures of cognitive ability. 1
A large study of the effects of alcohol consumption on Japanese American men over a period of 18 years found that abstainers and heavy drinkers had the poorest cognitive ability. Moderate alcohol consumption was associated with the highest cognitive performance later in life. 2
Researchers using data from a large study found that people who drank regularly, including those who consumed in excess of U.S. recommend levels, had a significantly lower risk of Alzheimer's disease than did non-drinkers. 3
A three-year prospective study in France found that moderate drinkers were significantly less likely than non-drinkers to develop either dementia or Alzheimer's disease. 4
Another study in France found that moderate alcohol consumption was associated with higher cognitive function among women over time. Moderate drinkers were 2.5 times more likely to receive the highest cognitive ability scores than were non-drinkers. 5
A study of 3,069 people aged 75 and older found that daily drinking of beer, wine or distilled spirits reduced the risk of dementia by 37%. Participants were examined every six months for up to six years to identify any changes in their memory or thinking abilities. The analysis controlled for other possible explanations for the findings. 6
Eating a Mediterranean diet, including the regular consumption of alcohol (beer, wine or liquor or distilled spirits) in moderation can significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Scientists at Columbia University Medical Center studied 2,258 elderly persons for an average of four years. The investigation revealed that those persons who most closely followed the Mediterranean diet had reduced their risk of Alzheimer's by about 40%.
The Mediterranean diet has long been shown to be a heart-healthy diet and there is growing evidence that "the kinds of things we associate with being bad for our heart turn out to be bad for our brain," according to Dr. Marilyn Albert of the Alzheimer's Association. 7
A New Zealand study now suggests that moderate alcohol consumption may also help improve short-term memory. The researchers at New Zealand ‘s Auckland University are investigating the mechanisms whereby moderate alcohol consumption improves short-term memory. They concluded that adaptive changes in hippocampal NMDA receptor expression may contribute to the positive effects of ethanol on cognition. Their study, conducted on rats, holds the potential for developing new treatments for memory disorders such as dementias as well as for victims of stroke. 8
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- Andel, R., et al. Strategies to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Aging Health, 2005, 1(1), 107-116.
- Antilla, Tiia, et al. Alcohol drinking in middle age and subsequent risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in old age: a prospective population based study. British Medical Journal, 2004, 329, 538-539.
- Bakalar, Nicholas. Nutrition: Mediterranean diet looks good for Alzheimer's. New York Times, April 25, 2006.
- Dufouil, C., et al. Sex Differences in the Association between Alcohol Consumption and Cognitive Performance. American Journal of Epidemiology, 1997, 146(5), 405-412.
- Espeland, M., et al. Association between alcohol intake and domain-specific cognitive function in older women. Neuroepidemiology, 2006, 1(27), 1-12.)
- Galanis, D. J., et al. A longitudinal study of drinking and cognitive performance in elderly Japanese American men: The Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. American Journal of Public Health, 2000, 90, 1254-1259.
- Ganguli, M., et al. Alcohol consumption and cognitive function in late life: A longitudinal community study. Neurology, 2005, 65, 1210-12-17.
- Huang, W., et al. Alcohol consumption and incidence of dementia in a community sample aged 75 years and older. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 2002, 55(10), 959-964.
- Mulkamal, K.J., et al. Prospective study of alcohol consumption and risk of dementia in older adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2003 (March 19), 289, 1405-1413.)
- Orogozo, J. M., et al. Wine consumption and dementia in the elderly: a prospective community study in the Bordeaux area. Revue Neurologique, 1997, 153
- Rodgers, B., et al. Non-linear relationships between cognitive function and alcohol consumption in young, middle-aged and older adults: The PATH Through Life Project. Addiction, 2005, 100(9), 1280-1290
- Ruitenberg, A., et al. Alcohol consumption and risk of dementia: the Rotterdam Study. Lancet, 2002, 359(9303), 281-286.
- Scarmeas, N., et al. Mediterranean diet and risk for Alzheimer's disease. Annals of Neurology, 2006 (published online April 18, 2006).
- Solfrizzi, Vencenzo et al. Alcohol consumption, mild cognitive impairment, and progression to dementia. Neurology, 2007, 68(2)
- Stampfer, M.J., et al. Effects of moderate alcohol consumption on cognitive function in women. New England Journal of Medicine, 2005, 352, 245-253.
- Zuccala, G. , et al. Dose-related impact of alcohol consumption on cognitive function in advanced age: Results of a multicenter study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2001, 25, 1743-1748.
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