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Moderate Drinking May Help the Aging Brain

Reduced Alzheimer's risk found in Dutch study

THURSDAY, Jan. 24, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The Biblical injunction to "use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thy often infirmities" might also apply to mental function, Dutch researchers say.

A six-year study found that middle-age and older people who were moderate drinkers -- one to three drinks a day -- had a significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia than teetotalers or heavier drinkers, a group at Erasmus University Medical School in Rotterdam reports in the Jan. 26 issue of The Lancet.

And while the reduction in this study was not related to the type of alcoholic beverage people imbibed, the report does cite a French study that found moderate wine consumption was associated with a lower risk of dementia.

The finding suggests that a drink or two (or perhaps three) a day has the same beneficial effect for arteries in the brain as in the heart, the report says. Several studies have found that moderate drinking lowers the risk of blood clots in heart arteries. An alternative explanation is that alcohol peps up brain activity by stimulating the release of a natural chemical, acetylcholine, which is known to improve memory and learning.

But a statement by Monique Breteler, the epidemiologist who led the study, says the study adds to evidence that vascular effects -- deterioration of blood vessels in the brain -- play a big role in Alzheimer's disease and other causes of mental deterioration.

"Our findings lend further support to the vascular hypothesis of dementia," Breteler says.

The Rotterdam study included almost 8,000 men and women who were 55 and older. Their drinking habits and other characteristics were measured at the start of the study and periodically over the following years. Light to moderate drinking was associated with a 42 percent reduced risk of all dementia and a 72 percent reduction in loss of mental function caused by damage to blood vessels.

"We saw some indication for a stronger relation with alcohol in persons with a genetically determined susceptibility for Alzheimer's disease," Breteler says. "Our findings can help focus research into the specific mechanisms that underlie the development of [demential] illness."

Paul D. Coleman, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the University of Rochester in New York, is cautious about accepting the study results wholeheartedly because of what he calls "a fair amount of sloppiness."

"The data about alcohol consumption is based on self-reports," Coleman says. "That is something that is notoriously unreliable."

But he says the link between moderate drinking and a protective effect for brain arteries seems possible.

"It is certainly reasonable that if alcohol is having a beneficial effect on the system circulation, it is doing the same thing for the brain," Coleman says.

The he adds, however, "I would not change my behavior because of this paper."

What To Do

A good source of basic information about Alzheimer's disease is the Alzheimer's Association. Meanwhile, go to the American Heart Association to learn more about how alcohol affects the circulatory system.

SOURCES: Interview with Paul D. Coleman, Ph.D, director, Alzheimer's Research Center, University of Rochester, N.Y.; statement by Monique Breteler, M.D., epidemiologist, Erasmus University Medical School, Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Jan. 26, 2002, The Lancet
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