AGING
May 25, 2009

The Message is Moderation

Two new studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption, particularly wine, can lengthen life and reduce the risk of dementia.

Adding to the catalog of studies that indicate significant health benefits may come from moderate drinking are two new studies that suggest that we may actually increase our life spans and ward off dementia by drinking a little wine every now and again. But don't run out to the liquor store too quickly, however, because the key word in both studies is moderation: heavier drinking was generally associated with a harmful effect or no effect at all.

Even more pronounced was the effect of drinking the same amount of just wine, which was linked to life spans five years longer than participants who never drank.

In the first study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Martinette Streppel and her team looked at over 1,300 men who were part of the Netherland's Zutphen Study, a long term survey of the health of men living in the industrial town of Zutphen. Streppel analyzed data from 1960−2000, a lengthy time period for a survey study. Participants were periodically asked questions about their drinking, smoking, eating habits, and illnesses.

By the study's end, over 1100 of the men had died. Streppel and her team found that drinking an average of 0.7 ounces of alcohol — of any kind — per day was correlated with a life expectancy 2.5 years longer than non−drinkers. Even more pronounced was the effect of drinking the same amount of just wine, which was linked to life spans five years longer than participants who never drank. Finally, moderate wine drinkers had lower death rates from cardiovascular disease, supporting previous research that has focused on the heart healthy effects of wine.

The researchers aren't sure of the cause, but suggest that the polyphenols in wine may be the compounds behind these phenomena. Polyphenols are thought to act as antioxidants and play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and possibly other ailments.

Another study, presented at the American Geriatrics Society annual meeting in Chicago last month, suggests that the development of senile dementia may also be tempered by moderate drinking. Looking at over 3,000 male and female participants (average age: 79), Kaycee Sink and her team followed up with the group periodically for six years, tracking various health−related factors as in the study above.

Among participants who were cognitively normal at the outset of the study, those who drank one to two drinks per day were 37% less likely to develop dementia in the course of the study than those who abstained. But for those who started out with mild cognitive impairment, drinking this amount of alcohol yielded no effect, and drinking more heavily — at least two drinks per day — seemed to increase the likelihood of developing full−blown dementia by twofold.

The mechanism behind the first finding — that moderate drinking lessens dementia risk — may have to do with the fact that alcohol increases the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which facilitates communication between brain cells. The second result is still somewhat of a mystery, and more research will be needed to determine whether the effect is real or perhaps due to chance, as the result of a small sample size, as one critic of the study points out.

The studies came out of the Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Wake Forest University School of Medicine, respectively.

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