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Moderate drinking reduces the risk of death in people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease

11-Dec-15
Article By: Ellie Spanswick, News Editor

Research conducted by the Danish Alzheimer's Intervention Study has proved a link between moderate alcohol consumption and a reduced risk of death in people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open focused on data from 330 people in their 70s living with early stage Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers were looking to deduce a link between their alcohol intake and the risk of cardiovascular-associated death.

Previously, evidence has established a link between moderate alcohol consumption and a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

Director of research and development at Alzheimer’s Society, Dr Doug Brown, said: “Despite some evidence to show that the occasional drink could have health benefits, this study is not a green light for people with Alzheimer’s disease to start drinking more.

“While this small study shows a link between moderate drinking and reduced risk of death in people with Alzheimer’s, we simply don’t yet know why that might be the case. Drinking is often a social activity, and factors such as social interaction have previously been shown to benefit people with dementia, so this could well have a part to play in these results.

“Looking at the effects of alcohol on people living with dementia, rather than as a risk factor for developing the condition, is a new idea. This could be an interesting area of research if it can help us identify social or medical factors that will help people with dementia to live for longer.”

Study volunteers were part of a larger study into whether education and counselling have an impact on memory and thinking skills and quality of life.

The study saw researchers ask a close family member or caregiver to assess how much alcohol was being consumed on a daily basis by the volunteer.

The level of alcohol consumed was split into four categories, these were: no alcohol, up to one unit per day, two to three units per day (a moderate level), or more than units a day.

'Moderate alcohol intake could have a protective effect on the brain'

Over a three year study period, researchers found lower death rates in those with Alzheimer’s who drank moderate amounts. They found that drinking two to three units of alcohol per day was associated with a 77 per cent reduced risk of death, compared to drinking one unit or less.

Of all those who took part just eight per cent were abstinent. A further 71 per cent said they drank up to one unit a day, 17 per cent consumed two to three units a day and four per cent or participants had more than four units a day. The study measured in Dutch units which are defined as 15mls of pure alcohol, compared 10mls for a UK unit.

Volunteers were followed for three years, and in this time, 53 people passed away.

In addition to measuring alcohol consumption, researchers measured other diseases, smoking status, weight, level of education and whether volunteers with early stage Alzheimer’s lived with their family or alone.

Commenting on the study, Dr Laura Phipps from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “While previous studies have tended to focus on the relationship between alcohol and dementia risk, this new research explored the impact of alcohol consumption in those already living with Alzheimer’s disease. This small study suggests moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced risk of death compared to those drinking only occasionally or those drinking more than four UK units a day.

“While these kinds of studies are useful in highlighting trends, it’s difficult to tease apart cause and correlation, and factors such as general health, medication and previous drinking habits could also have an impact.

“The effect of low or moderate alcohol intake on the brain is still being understood and current research is not conclusive as to how it may affect cognitive decline or dementia. Some studies have suggested that moderate alcohol intake could have a protective effect on the brain but further research is needed to explore this and help determine a specific ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption for healthy people and those living with dementia. Anyone who is concerned about their alcohol intake should speak to their GP.

“Currently, general advice around alcohol is to not drink to excess, with NHS guidelines recommending no more than three to four units of alcohol per day for men, and two to three units for women. In the meantime, continued investment in research is vital to find preventions for dementia and to better understand how different levels of alcohol consumption affect the brain.”

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