By Dr. Rob Winningham, Psychology and Gerontology Professor at Western Oregon University
I am frequently asked the question, “Is alcohol good or bad for my brain?” The answer is, “It depends.” It largely depends on how much one drinks, genetics, and maybe even gender. There is evidence that one to two drinks a day can have a protective effect on the brain in terms of a reduced likelihood of developing dementia or having a stroke. (Strokes can lead to vascular dementia, which is the second most common type of dementia, after Alzheimer’s.) In a widely publicized study, the Rotterdam Study, researchers followed thousands of older adults and found a significant decrease in their chance of getting dementia if they consumed a small amount of alcohol most days relative to people who almost never drink. However, the risk of dementia increased for heavier drinkers. In a 2009 study, researchers combined the data from many published studies and reported a 25–28% reduction in dementia relative to abstainers. The beneficial effects of alcohol may come from reducing inflammation, increasing HDL cholesterol, and increasing insulin sensitivity. Alcohol, particularly red wine, is also high in antioxidants, which might increase the longevity of our cells.
But, like many drugs, there are always risks that need to be weighed relative to possible benefits. And, it is important to note that currently there isn’t compelling evidence that starting to drink after years of abstaining is going to have beneficial effects. Particularly worrisome is the fact that heavy alcohol consumption can even cause cognitive impairment. For example, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a type of dementia that is caused by heavy drinking over a long period of time. It appears that this type of dementia occurs because of a thiamin or vitamin B1 deficiency that is common in heavy drinkers, and that deficiency leads to atrophy in an important brain structure involved in making new memories. (Note: Vitamin B absorption can be the cause of a number of memory disorders, regardless of alcohol consumption.) Older adults are also at increased risk of falling if they abuse alcohol. And, certain health conditions might be worsened by heavy drinking, including diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver problems, osteoporosis, and mood disorders. Heavy drinking may even increase breast cancer risk in women.
Is alcohol good or bad for our brains and memory? Clearly, it depends on many factors, most especially the quantity of the alcohol. Maybe the old cliché of “everything in moderation” applies here as well.