Past research has suggested that a glass or two of wine — or another form of alcohol — each evening may lower your risk of dementia in old age. But two new studies challenge that theory by suggesting that you might actually harm your brain by changing your drinking habits in later life — or drinking heavily.
The studies aren’t conclusive, and it’s possible that alcohol consumption wasn’t a cause of the mental problems but instead a sign that they exist: People who begin to have trouble thinking and remembering clearly may simply be more likely to drink, the study authors said.
Still, the findings raise questions about the existing assumption that a bit of alcohol is good for the aging mind. “It might be important for physicians to keep in mind not only what might be considered troublesome drinking in patients — typically alcohol abuse — but also what a patient’s past use may have been,” said Tina Hoang, a research associate at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education in San Francisco and lead author of one of the new studies.
Hoang and her colleagues looked at approximately 1,300 women who took part in a larger study and were tracked for about 20 years from the time they were at least 65. The women answered questions over the two decades about their alcohol use, and they underwent mental testing when they were about 88 years old to see if they’d developed problems with thinking and memory.
At the start of the study, 41 percent of the women were nondrinkers, 50 percent were light drinkers (up to seven drinks a week), and 9 percent were moderate drinkers (seven to 14 drinks a week). Heavy drinkers (14 or more drinks a week) were excluded.
At the end of the study period, the researchers found that:
Women who said they drank more in the past than at the start of the study were at 30 percent increased risk of developing mental impairment.
The studies were scheduled to be presented Wednesday at the Alzheimer’s Association annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada. It should be noted that research presented at meetings hasn’t been subjected to the peer-review process that studies typically undergo before they’re published in medical journals.