Study indicates moderate drinking could ward off Alzheimer's disease dementia

Thursday, January 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ A new study indicates that daily moderate consumption of alcohol, which has already been shown to help prevent heart disease and strokes, may also ward off Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

The study, published this week in The Lancet medical journal, also found that it doesn't seem to matter what people drink _ the effect is the same.

The finding adds to a growing body of evidence for the health benefits of moderate drinking.

Experts say moderation _ between one and three drinks a day _ is the key.

The adverse effect of excess alcohol is beyond question. Besides destroying the liver, several studies have shown that excessive drinking can be toxic to the brain. Alcoholics can end up with a shrunken brain, which is linked to dementia. There is even a medical condition called alcoholic dementia.

``For people who drink moderately, this is another indication that they are not doing any harm. And for those who don't, if they don't simply out of health concerns, they might want to rethink that position,'' said Meir Stampfer, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study.

Scientists at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, conducted a six-year study of 5,395 people aged 55 and over who did not have signs of dementia.

They were asked whether they ever drank alcohol. Those who said yes were quizzed on how often they drank and details on their consumption of specific drinks such as wine, beer, spirits and fortified wine such as sherry and port.

The men mostly drank beer and liquor, while women preferred wine and fortified wine.

The researchers also checked whether participants' drinking habits had changed over the preceding five years or whether they had engaged in binge drinking _ more than six drinks in one day.

Everyone was categorized according to how much they drank. Four or more glasses of alcohol per day was considered heavy drinking.

By the end of the study in 1999, 197 of the participants had developed Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. Those who fared best were people who drank between one and three drinks a day. They had a 42 percent lower risk of developing dementia than the nondrinkers.

Those who weren't daily drinkers but had more than one drink per week had a 25 percent lower risk and those who drank less than a glass a week were 18 percent less likely than nondrinkers to develop dementia.

The number of heavy drinkers, who numbered 165 _ mostly men _ was insufficient to draw conclusions about any affect heavy drinking might have on dementia.

Recalculating all the figures for each type of alcohol separately, and comparing wine to other types of alcohol, yielded the same results.

``This red wine thing is a myth. The evidence for it is meager,'' said Stampfer. ``It happens that red wine, in most cultures, is more likely to be consumed in moderation than spirits or beer, so for that reason it can appear to be specially protective, but in fact, the type of beverage does not matter.''

Researchers suggested the blood-thinning and cholesterol-lowering properties of ethanol in alcohol may ward off dementia, which is often caused by a blood vessel problem.

Another possibility, the study speculated, is that low levels of alcohol could stimulate the release acetylcholine, a brain chemical believed to facilitate learning and memory.