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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Some Alcohol May Help Aging Brains

Less Than a Drink a Day Found Protective
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 21, 2007 -- Drinking alcohol in moderation may slow the progression to dementia in elderly people who already have mild mental declines, new research suggests.

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 brains.

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 cognitive impairment.

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 Neurology.

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