By Kathleen Fackelmann
Gannett News Service
Light to moderate drinking may protect older people from developing dementia, including Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease that causes forgetfulness, according to a new study.
Research has already indicated that alcohol, in modest amounts, may help stave off heart disease. The new study suggests that moderate drinking might also ward off brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, which afflicts 4 million Americans.
Kenneth Mukamal at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and his colleagues began this study with data on more than 5,000 people age 65 and older. They collected information on how much beer, wine or other forms of alcohol the subjects consumed during a typical week.
Once the researchers had a drinking history, they kept track of the recruits. Ultimately they zeroed in on 373 people who developed dementia during the course of the seven-year study and compared them with 373 people who showed no signs of senility.
A statistical analysis revealed that people who drank from one to six alcoholic drinks per week had a 54 percent lower risk of dementia compared with people who didn't drink at all. Those who had seven to 13 drinks per week lowered their risk by 31 percent.
Researchers believe that alcohol prevents fatty deposits from building up inside blood vessels. The clogs can lead to a heart attack but they can also cut down on blood going to the brain. Those restrictions in blood, which nourishes brain cells, may damage parts of the brain and lead to dementia later in life, Mukamal says.
That theory is not proven yet. But researchers agree that the benefits of alcohol apply only to those who drink in moderation. This study found that people who drank more than 14 drinks per week had a 22 percent higher risk of dementia, perhaps because heavy drinkers lose that protection against blocked vessels.
Previous smaller studies had hinted that light to moderate drinking may help keep the brain healthy, but the new report is the largest to date, says Creighton Phelps at the National Institute on Aging, which helped fund the study. "That makes the results much more believable," he says.
The science so far suggests that light to moderate drinking may be one part of a healthy lifestyle aimed at warding off dementia. This study, and others, suggest that people who drink light or moderate amounts of alcohol can continue to do so, he says.
Other steps people can take to keep their heart and brain fit include regular exercise and a healthy, low-fat diet, which may also reduce clogged arteries, Phelps says.
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