Moderate to heavy drinking linked to lower risk of dementia: study

Drinking alcohol is linked to higher incomes and education, researchers say. Getty Images

The amount of alcohol one drinks later in life may be an indicator of a person’s chances of developing dementia or other cognitive impairments by age 85, a new study says.

According to researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, if older adults consume moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, their risk of dementia and other cognitive impairments is low compared to their non-drinking counterparts.

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“This study is unique because we considered men and women’s cognitive health at late age and found that alcohol consumption is not only associated with reduced mortality, but with greater chances of remaining cognitively healthy into older age,” senior author Linda McEvoy said in a statement.

Researchers looked at 1,344 adults (728 women and 616 men) and assessed the participants every four years over a 29-year period using a Mini Mental State Examination, a standardized tool for dementia screening.

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They concluded that those age 85 and older who consumed moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol five to seven days a week were twice more likely to be healthy in their cognitive functions than non-drinkers.

Drinking was classified as moderate, heavy or excessive using gender and age-specific guidelines laid out by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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According to the standards, moderate drinking was includes drinking up to one alcoholic beverage a day for adult women of any age, and men over the age of 65; and up to two drinks a day for men under the age of 65. Heavy drinking involves consuming up to three alcoholic drinks a day for women of any adult age and men over 65 years; and four drinks a day for adult men under 65. Anything more was considered excessive drinking.

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Researchers say there were very few participants in the study who drank excessively, so they were unable to look at how such drinking could impact longevity and cognitive health.

The study does not say, however, that drinking is the direct cause of a lowered dementia risk or improved cognitive abilities. Instead, alcohol consumption was an indicator of lifestyle.

Drinking alcohol, they said – particularly wine – is linked to higher incomes and education, which are also associated with lower smoking rates, lower mental illness rates and better health care.

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“This study shows that moderate drinking may be part of a healthy lifestyle to maintain cognitive fitness in aging,” said lead author Erin Richard. “However, it is not a recommendation for everyone to drink. Some people have health problems that are made worse by alcohol, and others cannot limit their drinking to only a glass or two per day. For these people, drinking can have negative consequences.”

The study was published in the August issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Other studies have looked at the link between drinking and the risk of dementia in the past.

A 2011 study by the University of Turku and the University of Helsinki revealed it had found a link between declining cognitive impairment and abstinence, heavy drinking and binge drinking.

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It also found that mild to moderate drinking may be “protective of dementia.”

Loyola University also conducted an analysis of 143 studies and identified a similar link between moderate drinking and a decreased chance of developing Alzheimer’s and other cognitive impairments.

According to researchers, moderate drinkers are 23 per cent less likely to develop such impairments or Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

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