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Alcohol Protects Against Dementia

German researchers focus on patients 75 and older and find that responsible drinking significantly lowers risk

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: March 14, 2011

A recent study finds that drinking alcohol in moderation protects against dementia, even after age 75. Scientists from several German university psychiatric departments and primary-care centers reported in the study that, on average, the daily consumption of alcohol reduces the risk of dementia by nearly 30 percent compared to nondrinkers. Additionally, the risk is another 30 percent lower for people who drink between one or two servings per day.

"Our study suggests that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption is inversely related to dementia among individuals aged 75 years and older," the scientists wrote. The team also found similar results in regard to Alzheimer's disease, classified as a specific form of dementia.

The results are part of a larger study on aging, cognition and dementia in primary-care patients across Germany. For this report, the team followed a group of 3,202 patients for three years. Half of the subjects didn't drink alcohol, and almost none drank heavily (more than four drinks daily). After three years, 217 of the subjects suffered from dementia. The scientists compared their lifestyles to occurrence of the cognitive disease.

Though the number of volunteers is relatively small, the researchers said the power to measure outcomes precisely is greatly improved by comparing to larger-scale studies that focused on a wider range of ages. And despite the small sample size, the study is getting the attention of the medical community. The International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research independently reviews studies such as this one. The forum, made up of alcohol-related medical researchers, found that the results of the German study are strong.

However, the researchers do not offer much explanation into the results, arguing that the "survivor phenomenon" may simply be stronger in older populations. The International Forum suggested its own theories, after reviewing the text. "Happy people with many friends have the most opportunities for social drinking and, in this study, alcohol consumption was significantly associated with factors that are protective for the development of dementia: better education, not living alone and absence of depression," said Erik Skovenborg, a member of the Scandinavian Medical Alcohol Board in Denmark.

Skovenborg noted, however, that even after controlling for these and other factors, the risk for incident dementia was still significantly lower among light-to-moderate alcohol consumers. What's more, the beneficial effects of alcohol increased markedly in those who drank wine.

Afshin Arya
Topeka, KS —  March 17, 2011 12:56am ET
The key is "light-to-moderate" alcohol consumption. I am not aware about how they defined the word "moderate" in their study, but the definition that I know of limits moderate alcohol consumption for men to 15 gram/day equal to 5 oz of wine/day (and half of this amount for women).
Steve Walker
Raleigh, NC —  March 17, 2011 8:36am ET
Regardless of what is or isn't moderate, this is great news! I'll take my chances on two glasses a day being moderate...
Eric Olson
Salem, Ma —  March 17, 2011 11:28am ET
I'm going for three.

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