Alcohol and Alzheimer’s Disease

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Moderate consumption of alcohol has already been shown to cut the risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Recent evidence has also found that moderate intake of alcohol reduces insulin resistance and may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. A Dutch study published in the January 2002 Lancet suggests yet another benefit.

This study of 5395 people age 55 or older who were followed for 5 years found that those who consumed 1-3 drinks a day were 42% less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or other dementia than those who drank no alcohol. Those who did not drink daily but consumed more than one drink a week had a 25% reduction in risk, and even those who drank only occasionally were still 18% less likely to develop the disease than those who never consumed alcohol.

There were not enough heavy drinkers in this study to draw any conclusions about its impact on Alzheimer's disease, but many studies have found many serious adverse effects on health from heavy alcohol intake. These include cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, an increased risk of several types of cancer, and a big drop in life expectancy. In contrast to moderate drinking, heavy alcohol consumption has been associated with an increased risk of dementia.

There was no evidence that the type of alcoholic beverage made any difference. Beer and hard liquor appeared to be just as protective as red wine. Most studies have also shown that it is the alcohol rather than something else in the beer, wine or hard liquor that is protective. Women who take estrogen appear to have a significant risk of breast cancer from even moderate consumption of alcohol. However, the results of this study suggest that as little as 1-3 drinks a week may provide some protection against dementia, and this amount is not likely to significantly increase the risk of breast cancer.

Bottom Line: Women taking estrogen and people with liver disease should be cautioned against even moderate alcohol intake. Alcohol consumption can be dangerous when combined with some drugs and herbs. However, moderate alcohol intake has been associated with an increased life expectancy and a decreased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and now possibly Alzheimer's disease and dementia. There seems little reason to discourage the consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol in most people.

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