Research by Dr. Kaycee Sink, an assistant professor of medicine in geriatrics at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem and colleagues, suggests that moderate drinking can lower the risk of dementia in older people.
The study found that amongst cognitively normal adults, one to two alcoholic drinks a day is associated with a 37% decreased risk of dementia over six years. However, among study participants who had mild cognitive impairment at the start of the study, drinking moderately had no effect. And heavier drinking -- two or more drinks a day - nearly doubled their risk of developing dementia during the six-year follow-up.
The authors looked at 3,069 men and women, average age 79, and followed them for six years. At the study start, 2,587 were evaluated as cognitively normal; 482 had mild cognitive impairment, which can progress to dementia. The researchers asked about alcohol intake, smoking, depression, social activity and other factors, and tested the participants’ cognitive functioning at the end of the study. About 38% of the participants had one to seven drinks a week, while about 9% had eight to 14 drinks a week.
Sink concludes that “If you are cognitively normal, there is no reason you should avoid light to moderate use of alcohol, and it may be beneficial. But if you have memory problems, we would probably say any amount of alcohol may be hazardous for your cognitive functioning. If you already have some memory problems, drinking is not going to help prevent progression to dementia, and may accelerate your progression.”
Exactly why and how alcohol seems to help preserve normal cognitive functioning isn’t clear. It os thought that it may increase the release of a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which helps brain cells communicate with each other.
Dr. Denis Evans, Jesmer Professor of Internal Medicine at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging at Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago comments that “the first finding in the new study -- the 37% reduction in dementia among cognitively healthy moderate drinkers -- “is a very substantial reduction and is consistent with other studies,”
In regard to the finding that those mildly impaired get no benefit or, if they drink more than moderately, increase their risk of dementia? “There may not have been enough participants to definitively find a link”, Evans said.
Sink presented her findings at the American Geriatrics Society annual meeting, in Chicago in April.