The truth about alcohol and brain health

Health conscious consumers are bombarded with different messages about alcohol. To drink or to abstain is not a straightforward question for anyone trying to embark on a healthy lifestyle. Some studies have shown that alcohol (and red wine in particular) may help prevent heart disease. Others show alcohol may increase your risk of some cancers. So, what’s the best course of action for someone trying to protect his or her brain health?

The MIND Diet

When my team and I developed the MIND Diet we included wine in the healthy foods list. Our recommendation for older men and women is to drink one 5 oz glass of wine a day. This is because research shows that a very moderate amount of alcohol is associated with reduced risk of dementia and cognitive decline. We don’t know exactly why that is, but alcohol increases HDL cholesterol–the good cholesterol that helps to clear the bad cholesterol from the arteries. Cholesterol is involved in Alzheimer’s disease in ways that we don’t understand at this point in the research.

Is all alcohol created equal?

The research studies on heart and brain health indicate that moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial whether it comes from wine, beer, or liquor. However, there is some evidence that wine may offer the best protection due to its high polyphenolic contents. Polyphenols are phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties. Studies of middle-aged men show a slightly higher beneficial level of two servings a day as men metabolize alcohol much differently than women even if they are the same size and weight. The MIND diet recommends only 1 serving per day for men because older-aged men do not have the same ability to metabolize alcohol as when they were younger.

Everything in moderation

Whereas we know that a small amount of alcohol can benefit brain health, we know that the opposite is true once you exceed the limit. Excessive drinking can lead to a host of health problems including high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, bone loss, and various cancers. If you’re following the MIND Diet it’s fine to add in an extra portion of nuts or berries to your diet, but think twice before you reach for the bottle and pour another another glass of vino. The chances are you’re damaging, rather than supporting your brain health. In fact, in imaging studies of the brain, higher levels of alcohol consumption above these very moderate levels were associated with greater reductions in brain volume, perhaps due to neuron loss.

No one has a perfect score

For some individuals, even a little alcohol consumption is not a good health choice, and for others it is not acceptable for religious or cultural reasons. Don’t let that deter you from following the MIND diet. In our study, those that followed the diet moderately still reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by more than a third. No one in our studies had a perfect diet score. Some people really struggle not to eat too much cheese; others really dislike beans. It’s about making whatever changes you can to protect the health of your mind.

Deciding whether to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner is a very personal choice. But if you do want to indulge, rest assured that in moderation, a glass of wine appears to support, not sabotage, your brain health.

Martha Clare Morris, PhD
Martha Clare Morris, PhD

Professor of Internal Medicine Rush University — Nutritional epidemiologist, Dr. Morris, developed and led the research on the MIND Diet at Rush University.