Moderate Drinkers Less Likely than Non-Drinkers to Experience Dementia

If you're hoping to live to a ripe old age without losing your mind, it seems that raising a glass to your health regularly could be a good idea. New research reveals that older adults who were regular, moderate consumers of alcohol are more likely to live to be 85 years old without dementia or other cognitive impairments compared to non-drinkers.

Counterintuitively, the researchers discovered that among both women and men 85 years old and older, drinkers of “moderate to heavy” amounts of alcohol five to seven days a week were twice as likely to be free of dementia and cognitively healthy than were the non-drinkers of the same age. The 29 year study assessed the cognitive health of the participants every four years, using the Mini Mental State Examination, a standard dementia screening test.

What does moderate mean, again?

The age- and gender-specific guidelines of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism served as the basis for the drinking categories; “moderate” drinking was defined as consuming up to one alcoholic drink daily for adult women of any age.

For men aged 65 and older “moderate” was also one drink per day, whereas it was up to two drinks a day for men younger than 65. “Heavy drinking” meant up to three drinks per day for women of any adult age and men 65 and older. For men under 65, “heavy drinking” meant four drinks a day.

Drinking more than the “heavy” amounts was characterized as “excessive” for any participant. The researchers pointed out that very few participants drank to excess in the study, so the effects of those levels of drinking were not shown. However, it has already been shown elsewhere that excessive, long-term alcohol intake can cause alcohol-related dementia.

How valid are these results?

It's important to note that alcohol consumption, especially wine consumption, is correlated with higher education and income levels. Those factors are correlated with more access to healthcare, lower rates of smoking, and lower incidence of mental illness. For all of these reasons, the researchers say their work doesn't show causality between drinking alcohol and longevity; it's those other factors that are related to longevity.

Furthermore, although confounding variables such as obesity and smoking were removed, the limited nature of this study's focus on statistical relationships between demographics leaves many questions unanswered.

On the other hand, the participants of this study were fairly homogenous from a demographic standpoint. They were all from a suburb of San Diego, and more than 99 percent were white and had at least some college education. This makes the suggestive power of the results stronger.