A new study shows that for people over 60 who do not have dementia, moderate alcohol consumption is linked to higher episodic memory, the ability to recall memories of events.
According to researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, University of Kentucky, and University of Maryland, light alcohol consumption is also associated with larger volume in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for episodic memory.
The relationship between light alcohol consumption and episodic memory goes away if hippocampal volume is factored in, providing new evidence that hippocampal functioning is the critical factor in these improvements, according to the study, which was published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.
The study is based on data from more than 660 patients in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort.
These patients completed surveys on their alcohol consumption and demographics, as well as a battery of neuropsychological assessments. Researchers also determined the presence or absence of the genetic Alzheimer’s disease risk factor APOE e4 and completed MRIs of the patients’ brains.
The researchers found that light and moderate alcohol consumption in older people is associated with higher episodic memory and is linked with larger hippocampal brain volume. The amount of alcohol consumption had no impact on executive function or overall mental ability, the researchers added.
Findings from animal studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may contribute to preserved hippocampal volume by promoting the generation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus.
In addition, exposing the brain to moderate amounts of alcohol may increase the release of brain chemicals involved with cognitive or information processing functions, the researchers postulate.
“There were no significant differences in cognitive functioning and regional brain volumes during late life according to reported midlife alcohol consumption status,” said lead author Brian Downer, Ph.D., UTMB Sealy Center on Aging postdoctoral fellow.
“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.”