Jan. 28, 2010 -- A drink or two a day may help older people stay mentally sharp, but moderation is the key, a new study finds.
Researchers in Brazil asked people 60 and older about their use of alcohol and tested them for dementia and other age-related mental impairments.
Study participants who were heavy alcohol drinkers had higher rates of mental decline and dementia than elderly teetotalers. But mild to moderate alcohol consumption appeared to be somewhat protective.
The study is not the first to suggest that moderate drinking may benefit the brain as we age, but the researchers concluded that it is still too soon to recommend alcohol -- even in moderation -- to protect against age-related cognitive declines.
Duke University Medical Center geriatric psychiatrist Dan Blazer, MD, agrees.
Blazer studies alcohol use in the elderly but was not involved with the Brazilian study, which will appear in the April issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
“I would certainly never recommend that an older patient who does not drink alcohol start drinking based on the research that is available today,” Blazer tells WebMD. “But that research does suggest that older people who drink moderately and who do not have difficulties associated with drinking derive some health benefits.”
Alcohol and the Aging Brain
Blazer’s latest research, published late last summer, suggests that binge drinking and other problem drinking behaviors are on the rise among the elderly.
The newly published study, reported by Marcos A. Lopes, PhD, and colleagues from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s “Old Age Research Group,” included 419 elderly men and 726 elderly women living in Brazil.
For the purposes of the study, heavy alcohol use was defined as drinking 2 ounces of ethanol a day for men and 1 ounce of ethanol a day for women.
A 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce glass of regular beer, and a cocktail with 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof liquor all have about 0.6 ounces of ethanol.
So men who consumed more than three alcoholic beverages a day and women who consumed more than 1 1/2 drinks were considered heavy drinkers.
Heavy alcohol consumption was highest among elderly men who had the lowest economic status and the least education.
Heavy Drinkers' Dementia Risk Greater
Overall, about 8% of the study participants reported heavy alcohol use, including 17% of males and 3% of females.
- A total of 42% of study participants drank alcohol but were not considered heavy drinkers, including 51% of males and 37% of females.
- As a group, mild to moderate alcohol users were more highly educated and better off economically than nondrinkers.
- About 19% of participants showed some evidence of cognitive and functional impairment and 6% were considered to have dementia.
- Heavy alcohol use was found to be associated with more mental decline and dementia, especially in women, when compared to people who did not drink alcohol at all.
The protective effect of mild to moderate alcohol use was weaker than has been reported in many other studies, the researchers reported.
Blazer says alcohol dependence and abuse among the elderly is an under-recognized problem.
“There is evidence that alcohol, especially red wine, in moderation, may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, and even death,” he says. “But these potential benefits have to be weighed against the risks. Even one incidence of binge drinking can be life altering in a vulnerable older person if it leads to a fall.”