Report: moderate drinking can help prevent dementia

A new analysis conducted by the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine claims that moderate social drinking can help reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment.

This conclusion was reached after medical researchers reviewed various studies dating back to 1977 that included over 365,000 participants. Those who kept their drinking at moderate levels were 23% less likely to develop cognitive impairments, Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.

The type of poison you pick can definitely have an influence as well.


Wine was shown to be more beneficial than beer or liquor. Still, this particular finding was based around a rather small number of studies, simply because most research papers did not differentiate between types of alcohol.


The results are published in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. The authors are Edward J. Neafsey, Ph.D., and Michael A. Collins, Ph.D., both professors in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics.


On the opposite side of the moderation coin, heavy drinking (more than three to five drinks per day) was linked to a higher risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.


“We don’t recommend that nondrinkers start drinking,” Neafsey said. “But moderate drinking – if it is truly moderate – can be beneficial.”


For those wondering how far they can take their moderate drinking, Neafsey and Collins defines the practice as a maximum of two drinks per day for men and one drink a day for women.


Of the studies reviewed, 74 of them calculated the ratios of risk between drinkers and nondrinkers, while 69 of them simply stated whether cognition in drinkers was better, the same or worse than cognition in nondrinkers. As noted above, Neafsey and Collins conducted a meta-analysis of the studies that calculated risk rations and discovered moderate drinkers were 23% less likely to end up with dementia or cognitive decay.


Some other findings included:

  • The protective effect of moderate drinking held up after adjusting for age, education, gender and smoking.
  • There was no difference in the effects of alcohol on men and women.
  • The beneficial effect of moderate drinking was seen in 14 of 19 countries, including the United States. In three of the remaining five countries, researchers also found a benefit, but it was not strong enough to be statistically significant.
  • The findings were similar across different types of studies (longitudinal cohort, case-control and cross-sectional).


It is not known why moderate drinking has a positive effect. One theory highlights the cardiovascular benefits of minor alcohol consumption, such as increasing good HDL cholesterol, which can also improve blood flow in the brain.


Another explanation involves “sick quitter.” This theory hypothesizes nondrinkers actually have a higher risk of cognitive impairment and dementia because the group includes former heavy drinkers who damaged their brain cells before they quit. Nonetheless, the analysis by Neafsey and Collins did not back up this explanation.


Neafsey and Collins offer a third possible explanation: small quantities of alcohol might, in effect, make brain cells more fit. Alcohol in moderation stresses cells and it toughens them up to deal with major events down the road that might cause dementia.


People who control themselves and drink in moderation probably don’t have any reason to quit. Since alcohol has the potential to be abused, Neafsey and Collins do not think that abstainers should begin drinking.


The researchers emphasize there are other activities besides light drinking (though not as fun) that can decrease the risk of dementia; such as exercise, education and a Mediterranean diet high in fruits, vegetables, cereals, beans, nuts and seeds. Believe it or not, even gardening has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia.


Furthermore, there are times when people should never choose to drink, including adolescence, pregnancy and before driving, the researchers said.


The Neafsey and Collins study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).