Alcohol: a little of what you fancy can do you good.

No, I’m not advocating that we all start drinking a whole lot more alcohol. Alcohol is a neurotoxin and long-term alcohol abuse causes brain damage associated with memory loss and neurodegenerative disease or dementia. Around 10% of all dementia is related to alcohol.

But red wine has a compound called resveratrol, which has attracted a lot of interest because as a flavonoid it is very powerful antioxidant and has been shown in studies to have an anti-ageing effect. Because of this, small amounts (i.e. around 100mls per day) of red wine is said to be OK as it enhances memory and cognition.

We have a dilemma. Should alcohol be recommended or not?

In a nutshell, binge drinking and heavy drinking is definitely not recommended. But what has been shown from a study published late in 2010, was that mild to moderate alcohol consumption was protective of dementia. In this study the researchers looked at the effect on the risk of developing dementia 20 years later, from drinking in midlife.

They found that the pattern of drinking was significant in terms of risk. Binge drinking or drinking heavily (one bottle of wine in a sitting) at least once a month was found to be an independent and higher risk factor for dementia as was a history of passing out following a drinking bout.

But the mainstay of the study was the finding that abstainers as well as heavy drinkers were found to have a greater risk of cognitive impairments than light drinkers.

In other words keep to light or moderate consumption.

So what constitutes light drinking?

A meta analysis of 23 longitudinal studies of people aged 65 years or older it was found that drinking small amounts of alcohol was associated with a lower incidence of overall dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but not vascular dementia and cognitive decline

Over 3300 subjects were interviewed at baseline, and then reassessed after 18 months and three years.

• 50% were abstinent • 25% consumed less than one drink (10gms) alcohol per day • 13% drank between 10-19 gms per day • 12% drank more than 20gms alcohol per day

Only a small number of people drank what was considered to be in the harmful range of > 40-60 gms of alcohol per day

Of those that drank any alcohol, • 48.6% drank wine only • 29% drank beer only • 22.4% drank a mixture of beer, wine or spirits

It was found that consuming alcohol was significantly associated with male gender, younger age, higher level of education, not living alone and not being depressed.

Analyses of the data showed that drinking small amounts of alcohol was significantly associated with a lower incidence of overall dementia and Alzheimer’s.

What about you? If you drink, are you drinking in moderation or do you need to review your drinking habits to make them safer for your brain? Remember the safe limit for women is around one glass a day and two for men. Plus it's a good idea to have a couple of alcohol free days each week.

The good news is that we don't have to feel guilty about enjoying a glass or two of wine with dinner, and it doesn't always have to be red.

Refs: Jyri J. Virta, Tarja Järvenpää, Kauko Heikkilä, Markus Perola, Markku Koskenvuo, Ismo Räihä, Juha O. Rinne and Jaakko Kaprio. Midlife Alcohol Consumption and Later Risk of Cognitive Impairment: A Twin Follow-up Study. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 2010; 22 (3): 939-948 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-2010-100870

Siegfried Weyerer, Martina Schäufele, Birgitt Wiese, Wolfgang Maier, Franziska Tebarth, Hendrik van den Bussche, Michael Pentzek, Horst Bickel, Melanie Luppa, Steffi G. Riedel-Heller for the German Agecode Study Group (German Study on Ageing, Cognition and Dementia in Primary Care Patients). Current alcohol consumption and its relationship to incident dementia: results from a 3-year follow-up study among primary care attenders aged 75 years and older. Journal of Age and Ageing, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/ageing/afr007