New research suggests that drinking alcohol may reduce aging drinkers, including the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Although extreme alcohol consumption kills brain cells, scientists don’t know if it has permanent effects on reasoning and memory. They do know that prolonged, excessive drinking can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and may contribute to the risk of breast cancer. Drinking is also responsible for many accidental injuries and deaths.

Despite all this, alcohol in moderation promotes cardiovascular health by boosting concentrations of good cholesterol and inhibiting the formation of dangerous blood clots. Compounds in red wine seem to benefit the heart and blood vessels, and alcohol also appears to guard against macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease. Now there?s evidence that the brain also benefits from moderate alcohol consumption.

From 1990 to 1999, Monique M.B. Breteler and her colleagues at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, observed 5,395 individuals age 55 and older who didn?t initially show signs of dementia. Of these participants, 1,443 ?moderate drinkers? reported having one to three drinks each day, while 2,674 said they consumed less than one drink and 165 said they had four or more drinks per day. Another 1,113 participants abstained from alcohol altogether.

Over the next 6 years, 146 participants developed Alzheimer?s disease and another 51 got some other form of age-related dementia. That put overall risk for dementia at 3.7%. Risk was about 4% among nondrinkers, light drinkers, and heavy drinkers, but only 2.6 percent of the moderate drinkers developed dementia.

Once the researchers adjusted their data to account for participants’ sex, age, weight, blood pressure, use of tobacco, and other factors that influence dementia, moderate drinkers showed only 58 percent the risk of dementia calculated for nondrinkers.

Moderate drinkers had an even more marked decrease in vascular dementia, a condition in which blockages in blood vessels in the brain cause minor strokes that gradually erode cognitive ability. The researchers think that since vascular disorders are linked to dementia in elderly people, alcohol’s benefits to blood vessels might indirectly sustain brain function.

Jean-Marc Orgogozo, a neurological epidemiologist at the University of Bordeaux in France has already discovered that French wine drinkers over the age of 65 have a reduced risk of dementia. The new research by Breteler supports that finding, and shows that beer and hard liquor, and not just wine, are good for the brain.

John R. Copeland, a psychiatrist from the University of Liverpool in England, calls the Dutch finding "very interesting but not unexpected." Although Copeland’s research suggested that heavy, long-term drinking reduces cognitive ability in elderly men, people who show benefits in the new study consumed alcohol in more modest, "therapeutic quantities," he says.

Orgogozo’s research suggests three to four drinks per day are required to help ward off dementia. He believes that the lower threshold needed in the Dutch study may mean that the participants underreported their alcohol consumption in a country that, unlike France, attaches a stigma to drinking.

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