People who have a few drinks a week may have a reduced risk of dementia, compared to those who drank nothing at all. But heavy drinking is still the most unhealthy behaviour of all.

Enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner? Many experts say that small amounts of alcohol can have a positive effect on your heart health. It’s a complex issue, because even small amounts of alcohol consumption may lead to an increased risk of certain cancers, meaning the benefits and drawbacks may cancel each other out. But what about the effects of alcohol on the brain?

American researchers set out to consider the question of whether alcohol consumption is associated with a risk of dementia and cognitive decline in older people. It used data from a group of more than 3,000 people who didn’t have dementia and who were over the age of 72.

This group reported how much alcohol they drank on a weekly basis. They also underwent brain testing to see how their cognitive ability held up over time and whether they started to develop dementia. The group were followed for about six years, and during that time 512 of them got dementia.

The researchers sorted this group into different categories based on their typical alcohol consumption: teetotallers who drank nothing, moderate drinkers who had between seven and 14 drinks a week and heavy drinkers who had more than 14 drinks each week.

They found that compared to the teetotallers, moderate drinkers were less likely to develop dementia over the six years. But drinking more than 14 drinks a week was also associated with poor brain test scores and a significantly higher dementia risk.

Implications

Drinking large amounts of alcohol is bad for you – full stop. But the story when it comes to small, regular amounts of alcohol is more complicated.

This study suggests that moderate amounts of alcohol may have some protective effect on the brain but the way this might occur still isn’t clear. More research is clearly needed to tease out these findings, but in the meantime you may feel a little less guilt sipping on that weekend pinot.

Last Reviewed: 23/07/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Koch, et al (2019). Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Dementia and Cognitive Decline Among Older Adults With or Without Mild Cognitive Impairment. JAMA Network Open doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.10319.

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