Moderate drinking may be tied to fewer deaths in early Alzheimer's

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(Reuters Health) - People with early Alzheimer's disease who consumed light to moderate amounts of alcohol every day were less likely to die during a recent one-year study, researchers found.

"These results are somewhat surprising because Alzheimers disease is a neurodegenerative disease and we know that alcohol can have harmful effects on the brain," said lead author Dr. Sine Berntsen of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. "On the other hand we have seen in earlier studies that alcohol in light to moderate amounts can have a protective effect on cardiovascular disease and mortality in healthy adults."

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The researchers used data from a previous study designed to assess a 12-month psychosocial counseling and support program for people with early-stage Alzheimer's. That study followed 321 participants in Denmark during the year-long program and for three years afterward, with study authors collecting data from patients' primary caregivers about lifestyle factors, such as how many drinks each patient tended to have per day.

Learn more about using sight and sound to trigger dementia patients' memories:

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Dementia, Alzheimers - Nursing homes using more sensory cues to help patients
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Moderate drinking may be tied to fewer deaths in early Alzheimer's
Olga Deacon, who has dementia, speaks with her granddaughter, Chris Boyce, in a replica 1940s kitchen, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Olga Deacon, who has dementia, recalls to her granddaughter, Chris Boyce, that her brothers fought in World War II in front of a memory wall, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A calendar from 1942 is posted in a replica kitchen Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Decima Assise, who has Alzheimer's disease, and Harry Lomping dance to old music in a replica mid 1900s living room Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Decima Assise, who has Alzheimer's disease, and Harry Lomping dance to old music in a replica mid 1900's living room Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A 1940s era replica kitchen is shown on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Vintage containers of food are displayed in a 1940s replica kitchen Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A vintage camera is display in a replica mid 1900s living room Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Olga Deacon, who has dementia, speaks with her granddaughter, Chris Boyce, about past travels in front of a memory wall, left, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
The Easton Home is seen on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Decima Assise, who has Alzheimer's disease, and Harry Lomping walk the halls, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at The Easton Home in Easton, Pa. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly using sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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Less than 10 percent of people did not consume alcohol at all, while about 70 percent drank about "one unit" of alcohol per day. One unit is equivalent to 10 milliliters of pure alcohol, one third of a pint of beer or one half of a glass of wine.

About 17 percent of participants drank two to three units per day, while less than 5 percent drank more than three units daily.

During the four-year study, 53 of the 321 participants died.

People diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease have an average life expectancy of eight to 10 years, Berntsen said.

Those who had two to three units per day had a 77 percent lower risk of death than those who had one or fewer units per day after accounting for gender, age, education and smoking, the researchers reported in BMJ Open.

"We cannot say for certain what the explanation behind this is," Berntsen told Reuters Health by email. "Earlier studies on alcohol and mortality in healthy subjects have proposed different explanations for reduced mortality with light-to-moderate alcohol intake such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, modification of inflammation and increase in insulin sensitivity."

People with moderate alcohol intake may have a richer social environment, which may itself have benefits, Berntsen said.

Moderate alcohol consumption has positive effects on cardiovascular disease risk and cholesterol, said Dr. Siegfried Weyerer of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, who was not part of the new study.

"I cannot see any reason why patients with mild Alzheimer's disease who consume alcohol responsibly should not have those health-related benefits including higher life expectancy," Weyerer told Reuters Health by email.

But long-term alcohol abuse leads to excess mortality, is detrimental to memory and can cause neurodegenerative disease, he added.

"Guidelines on Alzheimers disease management advise against excessive alcohol consumption as a secondary preventive measure, but we have not been able to identify any guidelines concerning light-to-moderate alcohol consumption," Berntsen said.

On the basis of this study, doctors can neither encourage nor advise against moderate alcohol consumption in Alzheimers patients, she said.

Older people who do not drink alcohol shouldn't start now based on this study, but those who do enjoy alcohol in moderation may derive some benefit from it, Weyerer said.

Also see notable people with Alzheimer's:

13 PHOTOS
Notable people with Alzheimer's
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Moderate drinking may be tied to fewer deaths in early Alzheimer's
This file photo dated 04 November, 1991 shows US President Ronald Reagan giving a speech at the dedication of the library bearing his name in Simi Valley, California. He was US president from 1981 to 1989 and retreated from public life after it was revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. (Photo by J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images)
In this Jan. 28, 2013, file photo, Tennessee head coach emeritus Pat Summitt smiles as a banner is raised in her honor before an NCAA college basketball game against Notre Dame in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee seniors Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale were part of the last class of Lady Vols to play for Pat Summitt. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
Glenn Campbell performs during The Goodbye Tour at the Ryman Auditorium on January 3, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ed Rode/Getty Images)
Picture dated 18 May 1991 of US actor Charles Bronson during the 44th Cannes film festival, southern France. Bronson died 30 August 2003 in Los Angeles of complications from pneumonia. (Photo by Gerard Julien, AFP/Getty Images)
American painter Norman Rockwell, 75, poses in his Stockbridge, Mass., studio on Feb. 12, 1977. (AP Photo)
Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson in posed action, May 8, 1947. (AP Photo)
Abigail Van Buren, the 71-year-old advice columnist, was in Seattle to address the fall meeting of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association, Sept. 28, 1989. (AP Photo/Robert Kaiser)
Actor Peter Falk on March 10, 1989 at his home in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Undated file photo of American actress and film star Rita Hayworth.(AP Photo)
392653 01: Actor Burgess Meredith performs in the television show 'The Twilight Zone.' (Photo Courtesy of Sci Fi Channel/Getty Images)
Actress Estelle Getty of "The Golden Girls" is shown at Trumps Restaurant in West Hollywood Jan. 29, 1986. (AP Photo/Steve Dakes)
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 31: Actor James Doohan recieves his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame August 31, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
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