Glasses of wine

Alcohol - Low to Moderate

  • Food & Drink
  • Updated June 17, 2016

While heavy drinking may lead to dementia in later life, some studies suggest that low to moderate consumption of alcohol—one drink a day for women, two for men—might be beneficial for brain health. The evidence, however, is inconsistent because it is difficult to know whether the beneficial effects are due to alcohol or other factors, such as lifestyle, education, or diet. If you already drink moderate levels of alcohol, it is most likely safe to continue.

Evidence

Dozens of observational studies and many meta-analyses and systematic reviews report inconsistent conclusions on whether moderate levels of alcohol consumption prevent cognitive decline. Our search identified:

• Multiple meta-analyses and systematic reviews on observational studies
• 0 randomized controlled trials
• Multiple observational studies

Potential Benefit

Although many observational studies have examined whether drinking moderate amounts of alcohol are associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, or age-related cognitive decline, they reached no consensus [1-4]. Observational studies suffer from a number of confounding factors. It is unclear whether the reported benefit from drinking may instead be due to socioeconomic status, cultural background, lifestyle factors, education, or dietary habits. For example, someone who drinks a glass of wine at dinner may also exercise more or eat healthier, which promote brain health. In the short-term, alcohol is well-known to impair cognitive function.

Although it is unclear whether moderate amounts of alcohol can promote long-term brain health, most studies agree that heavy drinking may be associated with cognitive decline or dementia [3].It is likely safe, and potentially even beneficial, to drink moderate amounts of alcohol, but the benefits to brain health aren’t enough to start drinking for this reason.

APOE4 Carriers:

Those with an APOE4 gene allele who drink high amounts of alcohol might be at greater risk for dementia [5][6][7]. However, the evidence for moderate alcohol consumption in those with APOE4 is inconsistent [8][9]. For more information on what the APOE4 gene allele means for your health, read our APOE4 information page.

For Dementia Patients

People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI)? who drink moderate levels of alcohol might be less likely to develop dementia [10][11]. It is possible that other factors explain this effect. For example, MCI patients with greater health problems might be less likely to use alcohol. There is no evidence that alcohol use can slow the progression of cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Given that alcohol can acutely impair cognitive function and interacts dangerously with many medications, patients with dementia should probably abstain.

Safety

Moderate alcohol intake (one drink per day for women, two for men) is generally safe for healthy people. However, heavy drinking is associated with a number of potential side effects including high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, certain forms of cancer, and Alzheimer's disease [4][12][13]. For more information on the effects of alcohol on the body, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

NOTE: This is not a comprehensive safety evaluation or complete list of potentially harmful drug interactions. It is important to discuss safety issues with your physician before taking any new supplement or medication.

How to Use

In the United States, moderate alcohol intake is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. A standard drink in the United states is equivalent to roughly 14 grams of alcohol, which is found in 12 ounces of regular beer (~5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (~12% alcohol), and about 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (~40% alcohol).

Learn More

General information on how to define different types of drinking can be found at the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Information on alcohol’s effects on the body can be found at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

References

  1. Beydoun MA, Beydoun HA, Gamaldo AA et al. (2014) Epidemiologic studies of modifiable factors associated with cognition and dementia: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health 14, 643
  2. Cao L, Tan L, Wang HF et al. (2015) Dietary Patterns and Risk of Dementia: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. Mol Neurobiol.
  3. Peters R (2012) Blood pressure, smoking and alcohol use, association with vascular dementia. Experimental gerontology 47, 865-872.
  4. Lafortune L, Martin S, Kelly S et al. (2016) Behavioural Risk Factors in Mid-Life Associated with Successful Ageing, Disability, Dementia and Frailty in Later Life: A Rapid Systematic Review. PloS one 11, e0144405.
  5. Harwood DG, Kalechstein A, Barker WW et al. (2010) The effect of alcohol and tobacco consumption, and apolipoprotein E genotype, on the age of onset in Alzheimer's disease. International journal of geriatric psychiatry 25, 511-518.
  6. Bleich S, Wilhelm J, Graesel E et al. (2003) Apolipoprotein E epsilon 4 is associated with hippocampal volume reduction in females with alcoholism. J Neural Transm (Vienna) 110, 401-411.
  7. Anttila T, Helkala EL, Viitanen M et al. (2004) Alcohol drinking in middle age and subsequent risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in old age: a prospective population based study. BMJ 329, 539.
  8. Downer B, Zanjani F, Fardo DW (2014) The relationship between midlife and late life alcohol consumption, APOE e4 and the decline in learning and memory among older adults. Alcohol Alcohol 49, 17-22.
  9. Virtaa JJ, Jarvenpaa T, Heikkila K et al. (2010) Midlife alcohol consumption and later risk of cognitive impairment: a twin follow-up study. Journal of Alzheimer's disease : JAD 22, 939-948.
  10. Xu G, Liu X, Yin Q et al. (2009) Alcohol consumption and transition of mild cognitive impairment to dementia. Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 63, 43-49.
  11. Solfrizzi V, D'Introno A, Colacicco AM et al. (2007) Alcohol consumption, mild cognitive impairment, and progression to dementia. Neurology 68, 1790-1799.
  12. Turati F, Galeone C, Rota M et al. (2014) Alcohol and liver cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Ann Oncol 25, 1526-1535.
  13. Sayon-Orea C, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Bes-Rastrollo M (2011) Alcohol consumption and body weight: a systematic review. Nutrition reviews 69, 419-431.