Heavy drinking is generally considered a hazard to your health, but new research suggests there may be an exception to this rule if you’re a white, older, middle-class American. According to the study, older adults who regularly consume moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol for most of their lives are more likely to live to the age of 85 without experiencing any form of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive impairments than adults who don’t drink at all.
Men and women who consume moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol five to seven days a week are twice as likely to avoid Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related forms of dementia than their non-drinking counterparts of the same age. While the results are surprising, and perhaps even exciting for those who enjoy their after-work drink, the researchers emphasize that alcohol itself may not be the cause of this brain health protection, and say the results should not serve as a recommendation for heavy drinking.
"This study shows that moderate drinking may be part of a healthy lifestyle to maintain cognitive fitness in aging," said lead author Erin Richard, in a statement on ScienceDaily. "However, it is not a recommendation for everyone to drink. Some people have health problems that are made worse by alcohol, and others cannot limit their drinking to only a glass or two per day. For these people, drinking can have negative consequences."
For the study, researchers from UC San Diego School of Medicine used data on 1,344 adults (728 women, 616 men) and followed their health habits and rate of mental illness from 1984 to 2013. More than 99 percent of the adults involved in the research were white and college educated. The team also adjusted the data to remove variables such as smoking or obesity.
The team defined moderate drinking as one alcoholic beverage a day for women, and two a day for men. Heavy drinking was three or more drinks a day for women and four a day for men. Excessive drinking was anything more than this. The researchers noted that very few individuals in the study drank excessively, and those that did, did not experience the same brain benefits.
Even when these factors were taken into account, there still remained a clear link between moderate to heavy alcohol consumption and better brain health in old age. While the study was not designed to explain what caused this discrepancy, the researchers hypothesized that it may be the drinker’s education level and wealth that maintained their health in old age, not their alcohol consumption.
Alcohol and wealth seem to be a reoccurring pair; a 2013 Gallup poll revealed that white, wealthy and educated Americans tend to drink the most. For example, while 64 percent of all Americans drink, only 52 percent of individuals who only have a high school diploma drink, compared to 80 percent of college graduates, Forbes reported. In addition to increased rates of alcohol consumption, white, wealthy, educated Americans also tend to have better access to healthcare and more knowledge about what lifestyle choices can benefit their health. These latter two traits may explain the correlation between alcohol consumption and brain health protection.
Overall, it’s still not clear if alcohol consumption impacts lifespan or protects against age-related cognitive impairment and until proven otherwise, it’s probably best not to overindulge.
Source: Richard EL, Kritz-Silverstein D, Laughlin GA, et al. Alcohol Intake and Cognitively Healthy Longevity in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Rancho Bernardo Study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2017