Moderate drinking (between one and seven drinks a week) could prevent neurocognitive disorders, while consuming between eight and 14 drinks a week seems to have no impact on them. However, the risk of developing a neurogenerative disease appears to increase when people do not follow the recommended drinking guidelines. And once the first symptoms of a neurocognitive problem occur, the potentially beneficial effects of moderate drinking disappear. These conclusions are drawn from the Éduc’alcool publication, “Alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, and other major neurocognitive disorders.”

The publication states that:

  • There is a fairly clear connection between drinking and major neurocognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
  • While we still do not completely understand how these diseases arise, many studies indicate possible avenues for exploring how different levels of alcohol consumption can affect the likelihood of developing such diseases.
  • The risk of developing a major neurocognitive disorder is three times higher among people who have a diagnosed alcohol use disorder, compared to those who do not.
  • Data regarding the effects of different types of alcohol are controversial:
    • While large amounts of resveratrol seem to have a protective effect when it comes to the risk of major neurocognitive disorders, it is not certain that the same effect will be achieved just by drinking red wine.

Caution is advised when presenting data like this. Drinking alcohol is obviously not the only factor that influences the development of neurocognitive disorders. Many other factors, such as smoking, diet and physical activity, also play a role.

To minimize the risk of developing a neurocognitive disorder, it’s best to:

  • Stick to the recommended low-risk drinking guidelines
  • Avoid smoking
  • Be physically active
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet

This Éduc’alcool publication was revised by Jean Vézina, Ph. D., Director of the School of Psychology at Université Laval and member of the Réseau Québécois de Recherche sur le vieillissement, part of the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS).

Beneficial and harmful effects

After reviewing the research on the subject, the Éduc’alcool publication lists the protective and harmful effects of alcohol with regard to Alzheimer’s disease and other neurocognitive disorders, and notes that the amount consumed is an important factor.

  • People who have between one and seven drinks a week have a lower risk of developing neurocognitive disorders than long-time abstainers. However:
    • It is not clear whether this protective effect occurs among people who have drunk moderately all their lives, or among those who began drinking moderately only later on.
    • Among older people, moderate drinking has been associated with a reduced risk of developing a major neurocognitive disorder. More specifically, the risk was reduced by 28% for Alzheimer’s, de 25% for vascular dementia, and 26% for all major neurocognitive disorders combined.
    • This beneficial effect is seen primarily in people who have between one and seven drinks a week; but weekly consumption of eight to 14 drinks among older people appears to neither decrease nor increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or other major neurocognitive disorders.
  • People who had an average of one drink a week had a slightly higher risk than those who had one to seven drinks a week, but a slightly lower risk than those who had between seven and 13 drinks a week.
  • Life-long non-drinkers come next, with a lower risk than those who had more than 14 drinks a week.
  • The same trends are observed when Alzheimer’s alone is analyzed.
  • With regard to Alzheimer’s in particular, the protective effect is more pronounced among men (risk reduced by 42%) than among women (risk reduced by 17%).

So what’s better? To drink, or not to drink?

There is no way to conclude with certainty the level of alcohol consumption at which a major neurocognitive disorder is caused solely by abusive drinking, any more than we can state the point at which alcohol will accelerate the development of a neurocognitive disorder that would have occurred even if the person did not drink.

Nevertheless, some researchers suggest that more than 35 drinks a week for men and more than 28 for women over a period of five years would be enough to conclude that a neurocognitive disorder is due to drinking.

A close look at the data leads us once again to the conclusion that, even for the brain, moderation is always in good taste.

“Alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease and other major neurocognitive disorders” can be downloaded here. Free copies are also available by calling Éduc’alcool at 1-888-ALCOOL1.