Booze and brain health

Indulging in one too many can lead to fuzzy thinking (not to mention a nasty hangover), but drinking alcohol in moderate amounts may actually help your brain, researchers found.

The study, published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, followed more than 28,000 people over the age of 60 for at least two years. After controlling for age, sex, smoking and other factors, researchers found that compared with abstainers male drinkers reduced their risk for dementia by 45 per cent. Women were 27 per cent less at risk than non-drinkers.

The review included meta-analyses of 15 studies, including 14,646 participants evaluated for Alzheimer disease, 10,225 participants evaluated for vascular dementia and 11,875 followed for any type of dementia.

So what exactly is considered ‘moderate drinking’? For the various studies in this analysis, light to moderate drinking was defined as having anywhere from 1 to 28 drinks per week. (By way of comparison, the Mayo Clinic defines light to moderate drinking at a more modest 14 drinks per week for men, and seven drinks for women.)

Alcohol and mental acuity

Accessing the effects of alcohol consumption on mental acuity is complicated by factors such as the type and quality of beverage as well as individual behaviour, researchers say. However, as found in previous studies, it is thought that moderate drinking can increase HDL, or “good cholesterol,” improve blood flow to the brain and decrease blood coagulation — all factors which may reduce the risk for dementia. (See Does drinking slow dementia?)

While results suggest that alcohol drinkers in late life have reduced risk of dementia, researchers caution that more study is needed.

“It is unclear whether this reflects selection effects in cohort studies commencing in late life, a protective effect of alcohol consumption throughout adulthood or a specific benefit of alcohol in late life,” they write.

A toast to your health — or dangerous overindulgence?

A number of studies have found that drinking alcohol can provide important health benefits, but only if taken judiciously. Overindulgence, on the other hand, can put you at risk of serious consequences.

How much is too much? Reports certainly vary, but according to the Mayo Clinic, moderate drinking is defined as two drinks a day if you’re a male 65 and younger, or one drink a day if you’re a female or a male 66 and older. A drink is defined as 12 ounces (355 milliliters) of beer, 5 ounces (148 milliliters) of wine or 1.5 ounces (44 milliliters) of 80-proof distilled spirits.

Healthy benefits include reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, gallstones and diabetes. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to serious problems, such as cancer of the pancreas, mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus and liver, as well as breast cancer.


Who shouldn’t drink?

The Mayo Clinic warns that people with certain health conditions shouldn’t drink any alcohol, since even small amounts could cause problems. These conditions include:

– A history of hemorrhagic stroke

– Liver disease

– Pancreatic disease

– Evidence of precancerous changes in the esophagus, larynx, pharynx or mouth

– Pregnancy

Also, keep in mind that alcohol interacts with many common prescription and over-the-counter medications such as antibiotics, anticoagulants, antidepressants and diabetes medications. (Read more.)

Sources: Mayo Clinic; The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry; New York Times

Photo © Pali Rao

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