Moderate Alcohol Consumption May Improve Cognitive Health in Older Adults, Study Says

Low to moderate consumption was defined as less than eight drinks per week for women and less than 15 drinks per week for men.

The findings support previous research that found that overall, one standard drink a day for women and two a day for men, which is the United States’ guide, appears to offer some cognitive benefits.

A standard alcoholic beverage in the United States is defined as 14 grams or milliliters of alcohol. That measure varies around the world; For example, a standard drink is 8 grams in the UK and 10 grams in Australia. In Australia, the guidelines suggest no more than 10 standard drinks per week.

“There is now a lot of observational evidence showing that mild to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with better cognitive function and a lower risk of dementia compared to alcohol withdrawal,” said lead principal investigator scientist Kaarin Anstey, director of the NHMRC Dementia Center for Research Collaboration in Australia, which was not involved in the study.

However, a major global study published last year found that no amount of liquor, wine, or beer is safe for your overall health. It found alcohol to be the leading risk factor for disease and premature death in men and women between the ages of 15 and 49 worldwide in 2016, accounting for almost one in 10 deaths.
Drinking under the age of 15, a growing problem in the US and other countries, was not included in the global analysis.
Global study says no amount of alcohol is good for your overall health

“What we know for sure is that drinking too much alcohol definitely damages the brain in a major way. What’s less clear is whether low or moderate intake may be protective in certain people, or whether total withdrawal is the best advice,” said neurologist Dr. Richard Isaacson, founder of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center.

“Based on conflicting studies, I don’t think at this point we can know for sure whether none versus low to moderate consumption is better for each person,” said Isaacson, who was not involved in any of the studies.

Not protective for African Americans

The new study, published Monday in JAMA, analyzed data from nearly 20,000 participants in the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal panel study surveying a representative sample of Americans about a variety of health problems.

The study participants, who were predominantly white, female, and an average age of 62, received cognitive tests from 1996 to 2008, and were surveyed every two years for approximately nine years.

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Compared to those who said they never drank, low to moderate drinking was associated with significantly higher cognitive scores for mental state, word recall, and vocabulary over time, as well as lower rates of decline in each of those areas.

Interestingly, the new study did not find that the cognitive benefit was true for African Americans.

“Few studies have evaluated whether the effects are similar across different racial or ethnic groups,” Anstey said. “Is [finding] it raises the possibility that ethnic groups vary in their vulnerability to the cognitive effects of alcohol. “

“This may make sense because of the increased likelihood of medical comorbidities like diabetes in blacks,” said Isaacson.

However, Anstey warned, there are fundamental factors to consider before concluding that alcohol consumption varies by race.

“The patterns of alcohol consumption are associated with socioeconomic status and other cultural factors,” he said. “It is very difficult to separate the biological from the social mechanisms at play here.”

In the end, this new study doesn’t change what most doctors already recommend, experts say.

“In my clinical practice, I look at the totality of the evidence and then I individualize the recommendations for the person being served,” said Isaacson.

For women, an overall maximum goal is four to six drinks per week at their Alzheimer’s prevention clinic, she said. In men that would be 10 to 12 servings per week.

“But this is not a ‘one size fits all’ option,” added Isaacson. “These decisions should be tailored based on body weight, for example, and also modified based on whether the person has a history of alcohol or substance abuse.

“Also, it’s not just about” what and how much “alcohol, it’s also important to consider” when and how “alcohol is consumed,” Isaacson said.

For example, having a glass of wine with an early dinner is “more sensible than two glasses late at night on an empty stomach near bedtime,” he said.

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“Alcohol at bedtime tends to lead to poorer overall sleep quality, which also affects the risk of dementia,” he added.

“I think for those who drink alcohol, they should follow the national guidelines as a guide to the maximum level of safe drinking,” Anstey said, adding that this would not apply to anyone with a health condition that requires alcohol withdrawal.

And if you’re not a drinker, don’t start, she said.

“Alcohol consumption, for example, increases the risk of some cancers. If you don’t drink, then we wouldn’t recommend drinking alcohol.”