Some Alcohol May Help Aging Brains
Less Than a Drink a Day Found Protective
May 21, 2007 -- Drinking alcohol in moderation may slow the progression to
dementia in elderly people who already have mild mental declines, new research
Defined in the study as less than one drink a day, low to moderate drinking
was associated with a significantly slower progression to dementia among people
with mild age-related cognitive declines, compared with nondrinkers.
The protective benefit was not seen with higher alcohol consumption.
The research was part of a larger Italian study designed to determine if the
healthful aspects of the traditional Mediterranean diet can help protect aging
people from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of mental decline.
Earlier findings from the study suggest that specific staples of the diet,
including olive oil, whole grains, and red wine, can help protect aging
Researcher Vincenzo Solfrizzi, MD, PhD, tells WebMD that these dietary
influences may act synergistically to slow mental decline, possibly by reducing
the blood vessel inflammation thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
85% Lower Rate of Progression
The Italian research is not the first to suggest a protective role for
low-to-moderate alcohol consumption against age-related mental decline. But it
is among the first to focus on elderly people who already have early signs of
The study included 1,445 elderly Italians without mental decline and 121
elderly Italians with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) --
considered a state between normal aging and dementia.
Patients with MCI who said they did drink alcohol but drank less than one
drink a day had an 85% lower rate of progression to dementia over 3.5 years of
follow up than nondrinkers.
A drink was considered to have 0.5 ounces of alcohol -- the amount typically
found in a 12-ounce glass of regular beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a
cocktail containing 1 ounce of spirits.
Alcohol consumption did not appear to influence progression to MCI in the
nonimpaired study participants. And having a drink a day or more did not appear
to slow progression to dementia in the patients with MCI.
The study is published in the May 22 issue of the journal
How Much Is Too Much?
While only very low alcohol consumption seemed to protect aging brains in
the Italian subjects, other studies have suggested a protective benefit for
higher levels of drinking.
One notable study - from Bordeaux, France - found three to four glasses of
wine a day to be optimal for reducing age-related dementia risk. Most other
positive studies have shown benefits for much lower consumption.
Solfrizzi says he advises his elderly patients who drink to restrict their
alcohol consumption to one or two drinks a day.
Mayo Clinic neurologist Ron Petersen, MD, tells WebMD that the studies
examining the role of alcohol and age-related mental decline fall far short of
proving a protective benefit.
Petersen is a fellow with the American Academy of Neurology.
“Methodologically, these are not easy studies to do,” he says. “Even if
people are honest about how much they drink, their memories may not be
He says one alcoholic drink a day is “probably safe and may be beneficial”
for most elderly people concerned about dementia.
“That is a conservative interpretation of the research, but it is probably
more accurate than not,” he says.