19 November 2014
Aged Care Reviews
For those 60 years of age and older who do not already have dementia, light alcohol consumption is associated with improved memory, specifically the ability to remember memories of events, also called episodic memory. A team of researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch, the University of Kentucky and the University of Maryland reported this finding in a recent study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.
In the article, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to two drinks per day, not taken as an average but as a daily maximum. In the animal model noted in the study, moderate alcohol consumption was also associated with a larger volume in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that is the key to the episodic memory that is affected.
There is still more evidence that the increased hippocampal volume is the key to the improved episodic memory. When the researchers controlled for hippocampal volume in their analysis, the relationship between the light alcohol consumption and memory disappeared. This means that the hippocampal volume is the important piece of the puzzle to improved episodic memory.
Brian Downer, primary author of the study from UTMB’s Sealy Center on Aging noted, “There were no significant differences in cognitive functioning and regional brain volumes during late life according to reported midlife alcohol consumption status. This may be due to the fact that adults who are able to continue consuming alcohol into old age are healthier, and therefore have higher cognition and larger regional brain volumes, than people who had to decrease their alcohol consumption due to unfavorable health outcomes.”
Questions and answers about this study entitled Effects of Alcohol Consumption on Cognition and Regional Brain Volumes Among Older Adults:
Q: Where did the participants come from?
A: 660 participants in The Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort completed questionnaires for this study.
Q: What were they asked about in the survey?
A: Participants were asked about their alcohol consumption and questions about demographics. They also completed several neuropsychological questionnaires.
Q: What clinical data were collected?
A: The participants were screened for the presence or absence of the Alzheimer’s disease risk factor gene APOE e4 and they had MRIs of their brains.
Q: What did the researchers find?
A: The investigators found that light to moderate alcohol intake in late life is associated with increased episodic memory. It is also correlated with greater volume in the hippocampal region of the brain.
Q: What did the researchers not find?
A: Researchers found that the amount of alcohol consumption was NOT associated with any reduction in executive function (working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution). It was also not associated with any decline in overall mental ability.
Q: So how does the alcohol work on the brain? In other words, what do researchers theorize is the mechanism by which the alcohol consumption increases memory?
A: Animal studies provide some evidence that moderate alcohol consumption contributes to maintained hippocampal volume by encouraging the creation of new nerve cells in the region of the brain, the hippocampus. Researchers also believe that exposure to moderate amounts of alcohol may make the brain release more chemicals that help to support the function of the parts of the brain responsible for cognition and information processing.
Important Points to Remember about This Study and Alcohol Consumption:
- This research studied individuals over 60 who do not have dementia
- This research looked at light alcohol consumption in humans and moderate alcohol consumption in animals. This is defined as 1 to 2 drinks per day (not taken as an average).
- The benefit of alcohol consumption was only found on episodic memory. It did not affect any other cognitive functions.
- Although this study and other studies before it have shown benefits to memory of light light to moderate alcohol consumption in older adults, it is also well known that alcohol abuse, consuming more than four alcoholic drinks on a single occasion, can be harmful to the brain and brain function.
Disclaimer: Extended periods of alcohol abuse are harmful to brain development, brain function, mental health and can contribute to the development of other diseases unrelated to the brain.