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Study Finds Moderate Alcohol Consumption Lowers Risk of Dementia

A new study shows drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may help you stay sharp into old age.

Research on alcohol has turned up mixed results. It appears to prevent heart disease, but may raise the risk of some kinds of cancer. Studies on middle-aged adults have shown that moderate drinking may help ward off dementia - that's the loss of mental functioning that can happen with aging. But less is known about whether those beneficial effects apply to senior adults.

Dr. Kaycee Sink and colleagues at Wake Forest University studied the drinking habits of more than three thousand people age 75 or older.

"We found that for people who started out in our study completely cognitively normal, moderate drinking - which would be on average one to two drinks a day - they were 37 percent less likely to develop dementia over the subsequent six years of our study."

But Sink says people who began the study with memory problems did not see the same benefits.

"If anything, it looks like the more they drink, the faster they decline cognitively. And those in the heaviest drinking category, who were drinking more than two drinks a day on average, were nearly twice as likely to progress to dementia compared to the participants who were not drinking but had mild memory problems."

So Sink recommends that those with the beginnings of dementia should probably not drink. But for those with their full faculties, she says the benefits of moderate drinking are comparable to those of other positive activities.

"Older adults who walk three times a week have been found to have a 40 percent reduced risk of subsequently having dementia," she says. "So, drinking two drinks a day is a similar reduction in risk. However, I would not recommend that older adults drink instead of walk."

Sink says walking - or any exercise - is good for many things besides preventing dementia.

She adds it's not clear if those who didn't drink before would benefit from starting. But a drink or two a day, she says, may help you stay sharp. The research was presented in mid-July at the International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease.