Good Reason for Old Codgers to Drink
To drink or not to drink-that's one complicated question. There's plenty of evidence showing that alcohol rots body organs and renders users useless; and then there's a boatload of data showing that moderate drinking enhances both health and happiness. As soon as a study comes out exposing the risks of drinking, another, hot on its tail, showcases alcohol's benefits. One might wonder if the scientific community won't let the subject rest because so many researchers want to validate their love affair with the bottle.
So take it for what it's worth: a new study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias just came out suggesting that people over 60 who consume alcohol in light or moderate amounts have better memories than those who don't drink.1 Apparently, a drink a day for women and two for senior men is associated with the ability to remember events. It turns out that drinking in these limited quantities increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region associated with "episodic memory."
"There were significant differences in cognitive functioning according to late life, but not midlife, alcohol consumption status," said the report. "Patients who were light alcohol consumers during late life had significantly higher episodic memory compared to late life abstainers, whereas no significant differences between moderate and heavy alcohol consumers were detected compared to abstainers."
This study takes its data from 660 patients involved in the Framingham Heart Study. The subjects took a battery of neuropsychological assessments and submitted to MRIs of their brains, plus they answered questions about their lifestyle and alcohol consumption. All of the participants were free of any signs of dementia.
Actually, this isn't the first research to find that tipping the bottle helps grandma to remember. Earlier animal studies found that alcohol seems to literally pickle the brain in older subjects--in other words, it preserves brain volume by triggering the growth of new nerve cells. These studies also raised the possibility that alcohol stimulates the brain to release chemicals related to cognitive functioning. And a huge 2011 study that consolidated results of 23 previous studies found that moderate drinking may ward off dementia.2 Other studies have found that wine, perhaps more than other types of alcoholic beverage, correlates to lower rates of cognitive decline among the elderly.
Interestingly, the study found that those who didn't drink after age 60 were less likely to have a college education. Also, they were less likely to have been smokers in their younger years. Since one would expect smokers to experience more rapid decline in every way, this adds a dramatic edge to the findings: in other words, even smokers had sharper memories if they imbibed after age 60.
On the other hand, the magic doesn't work for younger folks, so you can't start imbibing early hoping you'll have a giant brain by age 60. Midlife drinking certainly does not increase brain size and doesn't at all enhance memory of events (which might be a blessing for those younger people who want to forget their youthful drunken binges). In fact, although elderly men seem to benefit from those two glasses of wine daily, middle aged men who drink just a little bit more than that experience a devastating cognitive effect. A study published earlier this year in the journal Neurology reported that men in their 40s who drank just two-and-a-half glasses of wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverage daily--that's just one half glass more than the amount at which positive results were seen in the American Journal of Alzheimer's study--experienced cognitive decline up to six years earlier than men who didn't drink, or who drank less than two glasses a day.3 Those middle-aged men who drank lightly didn't experience either a cognitive benefit or penalty for doing so. So the bottom line according to these studies is that drinking helps only the brains of those approaching Social Security age.
One of the interesting things about the over-60 study is the finding that although heavy drinking did not enhance memory in the older subjects, at least according to this study, it didn't seem to undermine it, either. That's certainly not the case for younger folks. In addition to this year's study in Neurology, a very recent study of 6542 individuals, published in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, found that those who drank heavily or indulged in periodic binge drinking at any point in life up through middle age incurred more than twice the risk of severe memory impairment in their senior years.4 In fact, 10 percent of all cases of dementia are directly related to heavy drinking.
The backstory here is that if you want a license to drink, aging may well have its rewards for you. Your joints may hurt and your hair may turn white but after age 60, at least you'll be able to enjoy a little bit of wine knowing it might be keeping your brain youthful.
- 1. Ward, Victoria. "Daily glass of wine aids memory 23 if you're over 60." October 2014. The Telegraph. 24 October 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/11184947/Daily-glass-of-wine-aids-memory-if-youre-over-60.html
- 2. "Light to moderate alcohol consumption may help to stave off dementia, research suggests." 3 March 2011. Science Daily. 24 October 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110302075819.htm
- 3. "Heavy drinking in middle age may speed aging by up to six years in men." 15 January 2014. Science Daily. 24 October 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140115172248.htm
- 4. "Problem drinking in midlife doubles chance of memory problems in late life." ScienceDaily July 29, 2014. (Accessed 26 Oct 2014.) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140729224949.htm