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Health Watch: Researchers Find Weighty Evidence of Wine's Brain Benefits

An analysis of numerous studies says polyphenols help brain function; plus, more proof that moderate consumption helps hearts
Photo by: Amana Images/Thinkstock
Numerous studies have found that red wine and Champagne can help neural functions as people age.

Christine Dalton
Posted: March 8, 2016

"There is no justification for recommending drinking on health grounds." That was the controversial conclusion of a recent health report by the United Kingdom's chief medical officers. The scientific community is still responding to the divisive report's recommended drinking guidelines and its dismissal of all claims of wine's protective benefits, going so far as to call them an "old wives' tale." Now a new scientific review published in the book Wine Safety, Consumer Preference and Human Health provides further evidence to the contrary.

In a chapter entitled "Neuroprotective Effects Associated with Wine and Its Phenolic Constituents," researchers present more than 95 published studies as corroboration of wine's ability to protect against cognitive impairment and disease. The book was edited by M. Victoria Moreno-Arribas and Begoña Bartolomé Suáldea, food science researchers at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

Moderate consumption of red wines and Champagne, specifically, has been shown to counteract brain aging, improve memory and protect against neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and dementia.

The mechanisms behind this beneficial relationship are not fully understood, but many studies cited by the editors credit the high concentration of flavonoids, resveratrol and other polyphenolic compounds found in wine. These organic compounds, found in red wine and other polyphenol-rich foods like fruits, cocoa and green tea, have shown the potential to protect neurons, decrease inflammation in the brain and promote memory.

Wine, however, has shown the greatest potential to improve cognitive performance in multiple studies, when consumed in moderation (typically two daily drinks for men, one for women, in most of the studies). The review's authors suggest that polyphenols are the key to brain benefits, but their interaction with other compounds found in red wine may explain why Syrah has a protective edge over dark chocolate.

The review also analyzes evidence of Champagne's neuroprotective effects, specifically its potential to improve spatial memory. Champagne usually includes the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and contains higher levels of phenolic compounds than white wines. Animal and human studies have demonstrated Champagne's ability to increase protein production in the brain, which stimulates neural functioning.

Drinking in Moderation Keeps the Cardiologist Away

Keeping up with the latest health prescriptions can be difficult. For years, heart experts stressed the benefits of a low-fat diet, but today, avocados, olive oil and other healthy fats are cardiologist favorites. Egg yolks and lobster have gone from a cardiovascular no-no to an acceptable cholesterol indulgence. The guidance on alcohol consumption, however, has remained largely consistent, and a new study reaffirms the positive effects of moderation.

Published in the International Journal of Cardiology, the research found that regular, light-to-moderate alcohol intake offers the greatest protection from heart failure, which occurs when the heart cannot sufficiently pump blood to the body. The benefits of this Goldilocks approach trump both excessive drinking and abstinence as well. The researchers found that drinking more than three, but less than six drinks per week offered the greatest reduction of cardiovascular risks.

Why should this research merit mention? The authors analyzed data from the Nord-Trøndelag study (HUNT), a massive population-based study, which followed the drinking habits of 60,665 individuals for 10 years. All participants hailed from the same small Norwegian county of Nord-Trøndelag, where the average alcohol consumption is low due to a strict countywide alcohol policy and non-drinking is a social norm. Few residents suffer from alcohol addiction or binge drinking habits, both of which negate the positive heart-health effects of drinking.

In this society of moderate drinkers, participants completed a health survey and attended a clinical evaluation. They also self-reported the number of drinks of beer, wine and spirits consumed in a normal two-week period and the frequency of alcohol consumption per month. Ten years later, drinking habits were again assessed and episodes of heart failure or cardiac dysfunction were recorded.

After examining the data, researchers found an inverse relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of heart failure. As long as a participant was not a problem drinker, regular moderate drinking lowered his or her chances of experiencing cardiovascular problems. The researchers did not find wine, beer or spirits to be most effective in preventing heart failure, suggesting that the alcohol itself, rather than polyphenols or other beneficial wine compounds, is responsible for these cardiovascular benefits.

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