Though drinking alcohol is not typically thought of as an activity that enhances memory, there is good news for alcohol drinkers over the age of 60; a new study has found that light alcohol consumption later in life is linked to the ability to better recall memories of events.
Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, the University of Kentucky and the University of Maryland collaborated on the study, which is published in the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias.
The team, led by Brian Downer of UTMB, used data on over 660 patients who were part of the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort to examine the link between midlife and late-life alcohol consumption, cognitive functioning and regional brain volumes in older adults who did not have dementia or a history of alcohol abuse.
The subjects filled out surveys on alcohol consumption and demographics, and they underwent neuropsychological assessments and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In addition, the researchers assessed whether they had the presence or absence of the genetic Alzheimer's disease risk factor APOE e4.
Results showed that light and moderate alcohol consumption in older individuals is linked with higher episodic memory - the ability to recall memories of events - and larger volume in the hippocampus, a region of the brain important for episodic memory.
Additionally, the team found that alcohol consumption did not have any significant impact on executive function or overall mental ability.
Hippocampal functioning may be 'critical factor' in memory improvements
The researchers also observed that the link between light alcohol consumption and episodic memory went away when they factored in hippocampal volume, which they say provides new evidence that hippocampal functioning is the "critical factor" in memory improvements.
They add that previous animal studies have suggested that moderate alcohol consumption contributes to protected hippocampal volume by encouraging generation of new nerve cells in that brain region.
Subjecting the brain to moderate amounts of alcohol could increase the release of certain brain chemicals involved with cognitive or information processing functions, the researcher note.
Commenting on their findings, Downer says:
"There were no significant differences in cognitive functioning and regional brain volumes during late life according to reported midlife alcohol consumption status.
This may be due to the fact that adults who are able to continue consuming alcohol into old age are healthier, and therefore have higher cognition and larger regional brain volumes, than people who had to decrease their alcohol consumption due to unfavorable health outcomes."
The researchers caution, however, that though their findings are significant, long periods of alcohol abuse - which they define as having five or more alcoholic beverages during a single drinking experience - harms the brain.
Medical News Today recently reported on a study that concluded a small segment of genetic material is integral in the transition from moderate drinking to problem drinking.
And in May of this year, another study suggested that just one binge drinking session may harm health by increasing toxins in the blood to levels that can trigger immune cells involved in fever, inflammation and tissue destruction.