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    Alcohol Helps Guard Against Dementia

    WebMD Health News
    Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

    Jan. 24, 2002 -- First heart disease, then stroke, and now a new study shows that alcohol can protect the brain from the ravages of dementia -- including Alzheimer's disease.

    A light-to-moderate amount of alcohol -- one to three drinks a day -- can decrease the chance of developing heart disease or having a stroke. Alcohol is thought to help prevent blockage in arteries and keep blood flowing freely. Recent medical research has shown that dementia may also be related to blocked arteries in the brain.

    Researchers at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands wanted to see if drinking alcohol could also protect the brain from dementia. The study is featured in the Jan. 26 issue of The Lancet.

    They looked at nearly 8,000 people, aged 55 and older, who did not have dementia when the study began.

    After 6 years, 197 people had developed dementia -- mostly in the form of Alzheimer's disease. But those who had one to three alcohol drinks a day, of any variety, were more than 40% less likely to develop any type of dementia during this time.

    One to three drinks a day decreased the chance of developing Alzheimer's disease by more than 30%.

    The researchers found that people with a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer's -- they carry the ApoE4 gene -- may gain even more benefit from light-to-moderate drinking, says senior researcher Monique Breteler in a news release.

    The researchers suggest several possible reasons for alcohol's protective effect on the brain. Alcohol seems to improve the overall risk for blood vessel disease, which is thought to be a potentially large contributor to all types of dementia. It can reduce the stickiness of blood clotting cells that are part of artery-clogging cholesterol plaques. And alcohol may also improve cholesterol, especially HDL, the good cholesterol.

    Alcohol may have direct benefit on thinking and memory by stimulating the release of a brain chemical called acetylcholine. This chemical is known to be involved in memory and learning. But beware -- drinking large amounts of alcohol can decrease acetylcholine production.

    Alcohol does seem to have several health benefits, but it can also cause serious damage to your mind and body if you overdo it. Doctors are very hesitant to suggest taking up drinking alcohol to someone who doesn't already , concerned that the person may become addicted.

    But if you're already a drinker, studies suggest that one to three drinks a day is where you should be -- certainly not more.

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