Auburn, Feb. 6---Alcohol:
a brain food?
it’s not quite as dramatic as that, though scientists are
reasonably sure moderate alcohol consumption may reduce the risk of
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
How? They’re not certain, although some suspect
the benefits may stem from alcohol’s effect in expanding arteries
and aiding blood flow.
"We do know that alcohol is able to prevent
arteries from becoming narrower," says Dr. Robert Keith, an
Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutritionist and Auburn
University professor of nutrition. "And so the benefits may
stem from the fact that the moderate alcohol consumption enhances
blood and oxygen flow to the brain."
The latest findings are from a study, conducted by
the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, between
1990 and 1999. It involved almost 5,400 individuals older than 55,
none of whom displayed signs of dementia when the study began.
Of these participants, slightly more than 1,400
claimed to be moderate drinkers, while approximately 2,700 others
claimed they consumed less than one drink a day. Approximately 1,110
participants were teetotalers.
In the course of the study, 146 participants
developed Alzheimer’s disease and another 51 got some other form
of age-related dementia. Based on these numbers, the overall risk of
developing dementia was 3.7 percent.
However, the study revealed that while the risk was
about 4 percent among nondrinkers, light drinkers and heavy
drinkers, only 2.4 percent of moderate drinkers developed dementia.
When the data were adjusted to account for
participants’ age, sex, blood pressure, tobacco use and other factors
associated with mental decline, moderate drinkers, compared with
nondrinkers, faced only 58 percent of the risk associated with dementia.
The study revealed moderate drinkers also faced a
lower risk of vascular dementia, which occurs when blockages of the
blood vessels within the brain cause recurrent minor strokes that
undermine cognitive ability.
Despite the study’s findings, Keith says alcohol
consumption is an issue that should be handled with extreme care.
While it is apparently true moderate alcohol
consumption offers long-term health benefits, the window of
opportunity is a very narrow, he says. Any alcohol consumption
beyond 3 glasses a day would be considered heavy drinking that
ultimately may undermine cognitive ability in older men. In
addition, many people who consume alcohol even in the moderate
amounts deemed healthy by the study may face an impaired ability to
drive a car, thereby placing themselves and others at risk.
"It doesn’t make sense for someone to say,
‘I’m going to drink one or two glasses of alcohol a day to
improve my health’ and then endanger their own lives and those of
others when they get behind the wheel of their car to drive
home," Keith says. "And besides, among some people, that
one- or two-glass daily regimen could quickly develop into a five-
or six-a-day habit."
"Yes, there is good evidence that alcohol
protects you against some forms of heart disease and even dementia,
but too much of it is definitely bad for you," he adds.
This, Keith believes, is one reason many government
agencies have been reluctant to embrace alcohol as a health
The Erasmus Medical Center study is one of several
recent studies that have associated health benefits with moderate
Previous studies also have shown that a couple of
drinks a day may reduce the risk of heart disease. Experts attribute
this to alcohol’s effect in raising HDL, the so-called good, or
protective, cholesterol. Phytochemicals, abundantly present in red
wine, also are believed to provide an added safeguard by protecting
arterial walls against damage from arterial plaque that typically
occurs in old age.
Robert Keith, Extension nutritionist, 334-844-3273)