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Loyola study: Want to stave off Alzheimer’s? Have a drink

Updated: October 19, 2011 4:15AM



If you’re a moderate social drinker, your habits may be helping stave off Alzheimer’s, dementia and cognitive impairment, according to Loyola University researchers.

Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine reviewed studies dating to 1977 that included more than 365,000 participants, a release from the school said. Moderate drinkers were 23 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, they found.

Wine was more beneficial than beer or spirits, but this finding was based on a relatively small number of studies, because most papers did not distinguish types of alcohol.

Heavy drinking (more than 3-5 drinks per day) was associated with a higher risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, but this finding was not statistically significant, the release said.

“We don’t recommend that non-drinkers start drinking,” co-author Prof. Edward Neafsey said in the release. “But moderate drinking — if it is truly moderate — can be beneficial.” Moderate drinking is defined as a maximum of two drinks per day for men and 1 for women.

Among the studies reviewed, 74 papers calculated the ratios of risk between drinkers and non-drinkers, while 69 simply stated whether cognition in drinkers was better, the same or worse than in non-drinkers. Neafsey and co-author Prof. Michael Collins found that moderate drinkers were 23 percent less likely to develop dementia or cognitive decline.

Other findings:

— The protective effect of moderate drinking held up after adjusting for age, education, sex and smoking.

— There was no difference in the effects of alcohol on men and women.

— The beneficial effect of moderate drinking was seen in 14 of 19 countries, including the United States.

It is unknown why moderate drinking can have a beneficial effect. One theory suggests the well-known cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, such as raising good HDL cholesterol, also improve blood flow in the brain.

A second possible explanation involves “sick quitters.” According to this theory, non-drinkers have a higher risk of cognitive impairment and dementia because the group includes former heavy drinkers who damaged brain cells before quitting. But the analysis did not support this explanation. It found that in studies that excluded former heavy drinkers, the protective effect of moderate drinking still held up.

Neafsey and Collins suggest a third explanation: Small amounts of alcohol might, in effect, make brain cells more fit. Alcohol in moderate amounts stresses cells and toughens them to cope with major stresses down the road.

For people who drink responsibly and in moderation, there’s probably no reason to quit. But because of the potential for alcohol to be abused, Neafsey and Collins do not recommend that abstainers begin drinking.

The researchers note that there are other things besides moderate drinking that can reduce the risk of dementia, including exercise, education and a Mediterranean diet high in fruits, vegetables, cereals, beans, nuts and seeds. Even gardening has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia, the release pointed out.

Results are reported in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.



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