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Brain and Mental Performance

Alcohol may help preserve brain health

13 years ago

949  0
Posted on Nov 07, 2005, 9 a.m. By Bill Freeman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Elderly men and women with a history of mild-to-moderate drinking may experience less mental decline over time than seniors who do not consume alcoholic drinks, study findings suggest. The findings imply that mild-to-moderate alcohol consumption may play a role in helping preserve cognitive function.

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Elderly men and women with a history of mild-to-moderate drinking may experience less mental decline over time than seniors who do not consume alcoholic drinks, study findings suggest. The findings imply that mild-to-moderate alcohol consumption may play a role in helping preserve cognitive function.

"Health professionals have generally paid more attention to alcohol abuse and dependence and their adverse consequences," study author Dr. Mary Ganguli, of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told Reuters Health.

"Our study suggests that we should also consider the potential benefits of more modest patterns of alcohol use."

Some prior studies have pointed to the potential benefits of mild-to-moderate alcohol drinking. One recent study, reported earlier this year by Reuters Health, showed that women over 70 years old who reported having about one alcoholic drink per day were less likely than teetotalers to show signs of mental decline two years later. Other studies have also pointed to the heart-healthy effects of alcohol drinking, particularly red wine.

The current findings are based on data collected from more a thousand Southwestern Pennsylvania residents, aged 65 years and older, over an average seven-year period.

The seniors, none of whom showed signs of dementia at the start of the study, were divided into three groups: one that reported no drinking, a second group that reported minimal drinking -- once a month or less -- and a third group that reported moderate drinking -- more than once a month. More than half of the group reported current drinking, but very few were identified as heavy drinkers, the researchers note.

The study participants' mental function was assessed at the start of the study, with periodic assessments occurring every two years.

Overall, seniors classified as minimal drinkers, and those classified as moderate drinkers, exhibited less decline in their scores on tests that measured general mental status, executive functions and psychomotor speed, respectively, than did seniors who reported no drinking. Those who reported minimal drinking also showed less decline in their scores on tests of learning, including learning a word list, and naming, than did non-drinkers.

These associations were particularly salient when the current drinkers were compared to former drinkers versus when they were compared to seniors with no history of drinking, the report indicates.

"This does not necessarily mean that quitting is bad for people; it is probably more likely that people quit drinking because of poor health or failing cognition," Ganguli speculated.

If so, this may partly explain why mild-to-moderate drinking was associated with less cognitive decline. It may be that the seniors who reported alcohol drinking were simply the healthiest, according to Ganguli. Other potential reasons for the benefits of alcohol drinking may be related to its cardiovascular effects, the researcher explained, including helping to keep the brain's blood vessels clear, or its beneficial effects on the brain's neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers.

Still, despite the findings, Ganguli and her colleagues conclude that their data "should not be interpreted as recommending initiation or continuation of alcohol consumption to preserve mental functioning in the elderly."

"What is needed now is not for people to run out and get drunk in the hope of preserving their brains, but for more studies to be conducted on the precise effects of alcohol on brain structure and function," Ganguli told Reuters Health.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging.



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