Volume 3, Issue 2
January 14, 2010
The fun way to lower your risk of Alzheimer's by 43%
We all know that drinking too much alcohol is a bad idea. On average, alcoholics shorten their lives by 10-12 years. Excessive alcohol intake also leads to decreased brain function along with an increased risk of strokes. However, there are plenty of studies that suggest light to moderate drinking is healthier than not drinking at all.
For example, moderate drinkers have a lower risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and inflammatory disorders. And they also have a decreased risk of dementia and cognitive decline. Unfortunately, most of these studies have one major flaw. Most of them look only at the effect of alcohol intake on brain function according to the amount of alcohol you drink when you're young.
What about older people? Do they equally benefit from alcohol? That's a question that a recent review article set out to answer.
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This study was a "meta-analysis." That means it compared the overall results of several studies, all of which were looking at the effect of alcohol intake on brain function. Statistically speaking, a meta-analysis is more accurate than a single study. So this was a good study.
In this meta-analysis, the authors reviewed 23 different articles published since 1995. Since they were interested only in the effects of drinking on older people, they limited the studies to those that focused on people who were older than 65 years. They wanted to see if light to moderate drinking prevented memory decline, Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, and dementia from unknown causes. Here's what they found:
There was an undeniable decrease in Alzheimer's disease in moderate drinkers compared to people who never drank. Drinkers were 43% less likely to develop Alzheimer's! When it came to all forms of dementia other than Alzheimer's, drinkers were still better off. They showed a 37% less likelihood of other forms of dementia.
When it came to general memory decline, there was an 11% less risk in those who drank. However, this decrease was not statistically significant. In other words, there was the possibility that the decline was just happenstance. There was also a decreased risk for vascular dementia, but this also was not statistically significant.
How does alcohol protect the brain? Researchers have proposed many mechanisms to explain this. One is that there are antioxidant properties of the flavonoids in beer, wine, and some liquor that may help to prevent the oxidative damage seen in the brains of patients with dementia.
So now we know that light to moderate alcohol intake is good for your brain. But how many drinks per day is "light to moderate" intake?
I took the time to look at most of the studies on alcohol and dementia. Then I compared them to studies that looked at some of the other protective effects of alcohol. The conclusion I reached is that somewhere between one-half to two drinks per day is likely to be the amount needed to get the most benefit. That translates out to 6-24 ounces of beer, 3-12 ounces of wine, or 0.5-2 ounces of liquor.
One final note: If you've never been a drinker, I don't encourage you to start. There are other ways to get this type of protection — such as taking resveratrol.
Finding your Real Cures,
Frank Shallenberger, MD
Peters R, Peters J, Warner J, et al. Alcohol, dementia and cognitive decline in the elderly: a systematic review. Age and Ageing 2008 37(5):505-512
Sacco RL, Elkind M, Boden-Albala B, et al. The Protective Effect of Moderate Alcohol Consumption on Ischemic Stroke. JAMA, 281 No. 1, January 6, 1999:53-60.
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