Can drinking slow dementia?

If you need another reason to have a glass of wine with dinner, a recent study delivers good news. According to researchers at the Department of Geriatrics at the University of Bari in Italy, people with mild cognitive impairment who consume up to one drink of alcohol a day may find their progression to dementia slows.

Researchers evaluated alcohol consumption and the incidence of mild cognitive impairment in 1,445 people. They then followed 121 people with mild cognitive impairment and their progression to dementia over a three and a half year period. The participants, age 65 to 84, were part of the Italian Longitudinal Study on Aging.

The study found people with mild cognitive impairment who had up to one drink of alcohol a day, mostly wine, developed dementia at an 85 percent slower rate than people with mild cognitive impairment who never drank alcohol. It was published in the May 22, 2007, issue of Neurology®, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Mild cognitive impairment is a stage between normal aging and dementia, where sufferers experience minor memory or cognitive problems with no significant disability.

“While many studies have assessed alcohol consumption and cognitive function in the elderly, this is the first study to look at how alcohol consumption affects the rate of progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia,” said study authors Vincenzo Solfrizzi, MD, PhD, and Francesco Panza, MD, PhD, in a press release from the American Academy. “The mechanism responsible for why low alcohol consumption appears to protect against the progression to dementia isn’t known. However, it is possible that the arrangement of blood vessels in the brain may play a role in why alcohol consumption appears to protect against dementia. This would support other observations that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may protect the brain from stroke and vascular dementia.”

The study did not find any association between higher levels of drinking, more than one drink per day, and the rate of progression to dementia in people with mild cognitive impairment compared to non-drinkers.

Prior study concurs
This is not the first study that makes a link between slower rates of cognitive impairment and dementia. In 2004 a prospective, population- based study published in the September 4, 2004 issue of BMJ (British Medical Journal) found a similar relationship. That study looked at populations in eastern Finland and found that participants who drank no alcohol at midlife and those who drank alcohol frequently were both twice as likely to have mild cognitive impairment in old age as those participants who drank alcohol infrequently.

However, the group of authors cautioned, “the mechanism by which moderate alcohol drinking could preserve cognitive function remains to be clarified. Is it alcohol as such or some other social and lifestyle factors that co-associate with certain drinking habits? Until all such factors and associations with cognitive functioning have been identified, we must be careful in how we interpret results relating to alcohol consumption. Our current data indicate that frequent alcohol drinking has harmful effects on the brain, and this may be more pronounced if there is genetic susceptibility. We therefore do not want to encourage people to drink more alcohol in the belief that they are protecting themselves against dementia.”

So it may indeed be that a single drink is good for you, but continue to exercise moderation!

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