Senior citizens who have one to six alcoholic drinks a week have a lower risk of dementia than either teetotalers or heavy tipplers, according to a new study.
"We found that abstainers had odds of dementia that were about twice as high as the odds of moderate drinkers," said Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University.
"Furthermore, those who drank 14 or more drinks a week also had a higher risk of dementia than moderate drinkers," said Mukamal, lead author of the study reported Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study compared alcohol consumption patterns of 373 patients with dementia with 373 people who did not have dementia, all pulled from a larger, long-term study on heart health among older adults in Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and California.
Alcohol consumption was checked both for how much was consumed at one sitting, and how frequently, during yearly medical visits. Dementia was identified through a series of neurological and psychiatric screening tests, including magnetic resonance imaging, done over a seven-year period.
The association between moderate alcohol consumption and reduced dementia risk held up even with other factors taken into account, such as weight, tobacco use, physical activity and even genetic predisposition to dementia.
With abstainers setting the threshold for dementia risk, moderate drinkers had a 54 percent lower risk, while heavier drinkers had a 22 percent higher risk than abstainers, Mukamal and his team found. Heavier drinking was particularly linked to dementia among men, for whom the odds were doubled.
Mukamal's team had reported earlier that light-to-moderate alcohol use was associated with a lower prevalence of brain lesions and other abnormalities, which are believed to be related to blood-vessel function. It's thought that alcohol might help protect against dementia by helping prevent hardening of the arteries.
"There is a large body of literature concerning alcohol use and cognitive function, but to this point it hasn't been clear whether alcohol consumption is good, bad or neutral," Mukamal said.
However, he cautioned that the strength of the study's evidence is still such that "we cannot recommend that older adults begin drinking moderately on the basis of these findings alone." Seniors need to discuss drinking with their doctors and make decisions based on those discussions, Mukamal added.
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