Research can have its benefits but it can also go wonky at times since various aspects of it tend to be contradictory. Take for example the new notion that half a glass of wine a day raises the risk of dementia. Yet this latest warning makes no sense whatsoever when drinking three and a half glasses of wine a week is assumed to be enough to raise such a risk.
This latest study of more than 13,000 adults, the largest of its kind so we are told, shows how even low levels of alcohol can harm the brain. Men and women who drank a little over one unit of alcohol a day suffered a noticeable decline in their brain’s ability to function over four years. One unit of alcohol is equivalent to around half a 175ml glass of wine, half a pint of beer or a measure of spirits. Researchers from Oxford and Cardiff universities say adults who drink more than this amount are putting themselves at significant risk of dementia. They are also calling for a discussion over whether the government’s recommended alcohol units of 14 units for both men and women should be lowered for older adults.
Shortly, the Royal College of Psychiatrists will publish a review into the harm that drinking does to the over 60s. Its authors believe that 14 units a week is an ‘unsafe’ level for many older adults because of the risk of dementia and other illnesses. Dementia is now the leading cause of death in the UK. There are 61,000 new cases a year, and no sign of a cure.
Researchers say alcohol is contributing to these rising rates because it is toxic for the brain and damages the memory. Professor Simon Moore of Cardiff University, one of the lead authors said; ‘We’re drinking ourselves to stupidity. If you want to remain healthy in your later years you should really minimise how much you drink. If you’re planning on drinking more than 10grams a day (1.25 units) you’re increasing your risk to dementia. If for example, last week, you were drinking one average of 10 grams of alcohol a day, about a bottle of Prosecco that week, but then next week you increase that to two bottles of Prosecco, you’re putting yourself at significant risk.’
The study published in the Journal of Public Health, looked at 13,342 adults aged 40 – 73. They took computer tests four and a half years apart that measured their brain’s ability to function. These tests are useful in predicting whether someone will develop dementia in later life. Men and women who drank more than 10 grams of alcohol a day performed much worse in the tests four and a half years on, compared with those who drank less often.
This was even more pronounced amongst those adults over 60, suggesting their brains are more sensitive to alcohol. Professor Moore said there were two probable ways in which low level drinking harms the brain. Firstly, it is thought to dissolve the nerve cells that send signals to the brain. As we get older, the brain loses its ability to generate the new nerve cells so this damage is irreparable.
Secondly, doctors believe alcohol prevents the brain from absorbing vitamin B1, which is crucial for the brain’s ability to work. Recently, a study published in the Lancet Public Health Journal showed that heavy drinking can treble the risk of developing dementia. Research from the Transitional Health Economics Network in Paris found that 39 per cent of those diagnosed with dementia before the age of 65 had signs of brain damage linked to alcohol. But researchers say there is growing evidence that moderate amounts of alcohol are contributing to the illness.
Last summer an Oxford University study, published in British Medical Journal, found that adults who drank between 14 and 21 units of alcohol a week were much more likely to suffer damage to a part of their brain linked to dementia. It involved 550 men and women who had MRI scans on their brains.
Well, well, all this is baffling since alcohol, particularly wine drunk in moderation, was until now considered to be health boosting and in most cases, where writers and artists were concerned, rather inspiring.
I personally believe that moderation is probably the most effective way to stay healthy, especially when old age beckons.