Alcohol has its uses, medically speaking, and one of them might be staving off dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment. Moderate social drinking appears to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and similar diseases by a massive 23 percent.
Top image via Michelle Grimord Eggers on Flickr.
That's what researchers at Chicago's Loyola University found. They reviewed various studies compiled in the last 34 years encompassing over 365,000 participants. Those who engaged in moderate drinking were significantly less likely than heavy drinkers and non-drinkers alike to develop cognitive diseases later in life. It appears wine was more beneficial than beer, but that's harder to say with certainty, since most of the studies weren't paying close enough attention to specific types of alcohol consumption.
Moderate drinking is defined as no more than two drinks a day for men, and one drink a day for women. Heavy drinking - defined as more than 3 to 5 drinks per day - carried the highest risk of developing these conditions, although that increased risk factor was not statistically significant. The researchers stressed that they're not recommending that non-drinkers should start drinking — merely that people who do engage in moderate drinking seem to enjoy some health benefits.
So just why might that be? There are a couple possibilities. We already know that moderate drinking carries with it some cardiovascular benefits, including raising the levels of good cholesterol in the body. By extension, it might improve blood flow in the brain, which aids brain metabolism and thus helps prevent the onset of cognitive disease. Another possibility is that moderate drinking functions vaguely like a vaccine for brain damage - the minor damage done to brain cells by moderate drinking toughens them up to deal with greater stresses down the line.
It should also be pointed out that "sick quitters" might be a part of the explanation. These are non-drinkers who used to be heavy drinkers, and so would likely carry with them some preexisting damage to their cells that would put them at greater risk of cognitive impairment later in life. Since relatively few "sick quitters" would go on to be moderate drinkers, it might tilt the balance of health in that group's favor. However, while the researchers say that phenomenon may have some minor impact on their data set, adjusting for it still reveals a clear benefit to moderate drinking.
That said, there are still plenty of ways to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's without booze, if that's not your thing. Exercise, education, and diets high in fruits and vegetables are all known to reduce the risk of cognitive disease - even gardening has been shown to have a positive effect. I should also stress that it is not recommended to combine boozing, exercising, learning, eating vegetables, and gardening into one epic, brain-saving activity...but I would sorta like to see the results of that research, I've got to admit.