It is well documented that excessive consumption of alcohol is linked to various serious health problems. Heavy drinking is a known risk factor for diseases such as cardiovascular problems, some types of cancer, cirrhosis, dementia, depression, pancreatitis and high blood pressure, among others. But what about low-to-moderate alcohol consumption?
A number of studies published in recent years present a view rather different from the traditional negative assumptions. Contrary to popular beliefs, they claim that moderate alcohol intake can be beneficial.
Let’s first define what is heavy and what is moderate drinking. If you are a male and drink at least 15 drinks every week, then you are considered a heavy drinker. If you are female, 8 drinks per week are enough to put you in this category. On the other hand, if you are a male and do not exceed 2 drinks per day you are a moderate alcohol consumer. For a female, the limit is 1 drink per day.
It is important, however, to remember that the above numbers are based on average statistics: some people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than others. This sensitivity depends on the level of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase in the liver, which metabolizes ethanol and removes it from the body. When the level of this enzyme in an individual is low (as often is the case in many people with Asian background, for example), the effects of low alcohol doses are much more pronounced.
Studies show that moderate alcohol intake can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, dementia, depression, stroke, breast and colon cancer. However, there is always a risk that moderate alcohol consumption can lead to much heavy drinking.
One recently published prospective study examined the influence of moderate alcohol consumption on the development of depression. This study was extensive and included over 5,500 men and women, all of whom had no previous depression or any alcohol-related problems. All participants were moderate drinkers and were followed for a period of seven years. The results clearly show that low and even moderate alcohol consumption reduced the risk of depression development compared to non-drinkers. However, heavy drinkers are known to be in greater danger of developing depression. Another interesting fact demonstrated by this study is that moderate wine consumption has a better protective role in the prevention of depression than any other kind of alcohol beverage.
Another prospective study included over 13,600 people that were followed for a period of ten years. The results show that moderate alcohol intake in females can reduce the risk of depression.
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the serious diseases for which there is no real cure at present time. Because of that, it is important to find risk factors promoting its development, as well as factors which can reduce that risk. Some researchers are focusing on the role of alcohol consumption in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. One of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease is an aggregation of beta-amyloid in the human brain.
A recent Finnish study was examining the connection of aggregation of beta-amyloid in the human brain and alcohol consumption. The results of this study show that the aggregation of beta-amyloid in the human brain is lower among beer drinkers. There was no connection between lower amounts of beta-amyloid in the human brain and consumption of any other types of alcohol.
In another study, over 3,000 people were examined for a period of six years. Some of the participants suffered from milder forms of memory loss. The alcohol intake also varied among the subjects. The results clearly show that moderate alcohol intake had a protective effect on memory for individuals which had no previous memory problems.
The problems with memory can be caused by vascular problems. Since the benefit of moderate alcohol intake on the cardiovascular system is well known, scientists thought that it may work the same way in the prevention of memory problems. They followed a group of nearly 8,000 people and recorded their alcohol consumption and symptoms of memory problems. Their main conclusion was that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of dementia in people above 55 years of age. There is a large number of studies which were done on this topic and the conclusions were the same: moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment.
Recent reports also brought to light the findings that moderate alcohol consumption can influence the size of the hippocampus in elderly population. Compared to abstainers, moderate drinkers have a larger hippocampus and better episodic memory.
So, the scientific data point to the benefits of moderate drinking: it may help to keep a higher level of cognition and prevent age-related deterioration of brain functions. The key is not to go over your limit. Keep your alcohol intake on a moderate level and stay healthy.
Downer, B., Jiang, Y., Zanjani, F., & Fardo, D. (2014). Effects of Alcohol Consumption on Cognition and Regional Brain Volumes Among Older Adults American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 30 (4), 364-374 DOI: 10.1177/1533317514549411
Gea, A., Beunza, J., Estruch, R., Sánchez-Villegas, A., Salas-Salvadó, J., Buil-Cosiales, P., Gómez-Gracia, E., Covas, M., Corella, D., Fiol, M., Arós, F., Lapetra, J., Lamuela-Raventós, R., Wärnberg, J., Pintó, X., Serra-Majem, L., & Martínez-González, M. (2013). Alcohol intake, wine consumption and the development of depression: the PREDIMED study BMC Medicine, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-192
Kok, E., Karppinen, T., Luoto, T., Alafuzoff, I., & Karhunen, P. (2016). Beer Drinking Associates with Lower Burden of Amyloid Beta Aggregation in the Brain: Helsinki Sudden Death Series Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 40 (7), 1473-1478 DOI: 10.1111/acer.13102
Lang, I., Wallace, R., Huppert, F., & Melzer, D. (2007). Moderate alcohol consumption in older adults is associated with better cognition and well-being than abstinence Age and Ageing, 36 (3), 256-261 DOI: 10.1093/ageing/afm001
Neafsey, E., & Collins, M. (2011). Moderate alcohol consumption and cognitive risk Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment DOI: 10.2147/NDT.S23159
This guest article originally appeared on the award-winning health and science blog and brain-themed community, BrainBlogger: Does Moderate Alcohol Consumption Improve Brain Function?