How does wine affect the aging brain?

Jul 30, 2015

Q: I'm an older gentleman who stills works a job requiring mental acuity and memory. I eat healthy and drink wine moderately. Does wine have an adverse effect on memory and motor skills as you get older?

A: As the Baby Boomer generation ages, researchers are increasingly interested in the intersection of diet and brain health. Many dietary choices involve a complex evaluation of risk versus benefit—and that’s especially important when it comes to alcohol.

We all know what too much alcohol does to our motor skills and memory, no matter our age, and abuse in middle age can lead to increased risk for dementia and long-term memory impairment later in life. But when it comes to light to moderate consumption, numerous studies—albeit many on lab rats—have shown that drinking may improve memory (one looked at Champagne in particular!), is linked to better brain health in older women and, with its high level of antioxidants, might even help with certain neurological illnesses.

More recently, a study published in the May 2015 journal Alcohol investigated an important question: Does a moderate amount of alcohol impair brain function in older adults? University of Florida researchers focused on the effects of low- and moderate-dose alcohol on psychomotor skills, set-shifting and working memory performance in men and women ages 55 to 70.

The 62 participants—healthy, light to moderate drinkers (up to 1 to 2 drinks per day)—were sorted into blind groups: no alcohol (given a placebo drink), low alcohol and moderate alcohol. On tasks set out by the researchers, the moderate and no-alcohol groups performed at the same cognitive rates. However, the low-dose alcohol group outperformed both of those groups. "Relative to the placebo group, the low-dose group exhibited better working memory, specifically for faces," the researchers stated, concluding that, at least for their study's tasks, low and moderate doses of alcohol do not significantly hinder older adults' cognitive performance.

Of course, this is a relatively small study, and more research is needed on the effects of alcohol on the aging brain. But you shouldn't have to worry about your job performance due to the occasional glass of wine!

Have a question about wine and healthy living? E-mail us.

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