Moderate drinking might be associated with a reduced risk of dementia and other cognitive impairments among certain individuals, according to a long-term study recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
For the study, researchers at the University of California-San Diego (UC-San Diego) analyzed data from 1984 to 2013 from an ongoing cohort study of heart disease risk factors to determine whether there is an association between the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption and "cognitively healthy longevity" (CHL). The study findings are based on responses from 1,344 participants, who primarily were white, middle to upper-middle class adults ages 30 to 79 with at least some college education.
The researchers assessed the study participants' alcohol consumption via a questionnaire completed during a research clinic visit from 1984 to 1987. The researchers categorized the study participants' alcohol consumption as moderate, heavy, or excessive based on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's (NIAAA) gender and age-specific guidelines. Under those guidelines:
- Moderate drinking is classified as consuming up two alcoholic drinks daily for adult men under age 65 and one drink daily for adult women of any age and men 65 and older;
- Heavy drinking is classified as consuming up to four alcoholic drinks daily for adult men under 65 and three alcoholic beverages daily for women of any adult age and men 65 and older; and
- Any amount of alcohol consumption higher than the amounts classified as "heavy" drinking is considered excessive.
Individuals who had not had a drink within the past year were considered non-drinkers. According to a UC-San Diego release, very few study participants consumed alcohol in excess.
The researchers between 1988 and 2009 also assessed study participants' cognitive function about every four years using a standard dementia screening test.
According to the study, participants who frequently consumed "moderate to heavy" amounts of alcohol were more likely to be cognitively healthy in their older years than non-drinkers. In particular, the researchers found older adults who regularly consumed moderate and heavy amounts of alcohol were more likely than non-drinkers to live to age 85 without experiencing dementia or other cognitive impairments.
In addition, the researchers found that participants who consumed alcohol "on a near-daily basis" were more likely to reach age 85 without experiencing cognitive impairment when compared with non-drinkers and participants who consumed alcohol less frequently.
The researchers said while the study does demonstrate an association between alcohol consumption and CHL, it does not show a cause-and-effect relationship.
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Linda McEvoy, a senior author of the study and an associate professor at UC-San Diego's School of Medicine, said the "study is unique because we considered men and women's cognitive health at late age and found that alcohol consumption is not only associated with reduced mortality, but with greater chances of remaining cognitively healthy into older age."
Still, the researchers said the study's findings do "not suggest drinking is responsible for increased longevity and cognitive health." They added, "Alcohol consumption, particularly of wine, is associated with higher incomes and education levels, which in turn are associated with lower rates of smoking, lower rates of mental illness, and better access to health care."
In addition, Erin Richard, a lead author on the study, said while the findings "sho[w] that moderate drinking may be part of a healthy lifestyle to maintain cognitive fitness in aging … it is not a recommendation for everyone to drink." Richard continued, "Some people have health problems that are made worse by alcohol, and others cannot limit their drinking to only a glass or two per day. For these people, drinking can have negative consequences" (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/4; Preidt, HealthDay, 8/6; University of California-San Diego release, 8/1; 7/29; Richard et al., Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 7/29).
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