July 31, 2014
   
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Alcohol: Friend or Foe?
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Alcohol: Friend or Foe?

 

If you’ve read the recent headlines on the health effects of alcohol and are feeling dazed and confused, it’s not just you. Study results published within a single week – or day – suggest a bewildering range of effects for alcohol consumption.

According to some of the most recent studies, alcohol use may prevent Alzheimer’s disease yet it can also cause brain damage. It is linked to stomach and lung cancers but it also seems to improve longevity. What are we to make of these findings, which are seemingly so at odds with one another?

Much the reason that alcohol has different effects in different studies has to do with the amount of drinking the study participants are doing.

In this article we’ll sift through some of the recent data on alcohol consumption, and help sort out how much, and perhaps more importantly, how frequently, alcohol should be consumed to be beneficial rather than detrimental.

Moderation is Part (but Only Part) of the Puzzle

Some of the answer lies in how drinking is defined. Mild to moderate drinking is generally linked to better health effects, while heavier drinking, particularly in bouts or binges, is more often linked to worse health outcomes.

According to the NIH, “moderate drinking is probably safe.”(1) Though the statement is not exactly a ringing endorsement, it’s the best guess we have as the research continues to come in. The NIH, along with most researchers, defines moderate drinking as one drink per day for women, and two per day for men – tops. For both sexes over the age of 65, drinking should also be limited to one drink or less per day. Problems seem to occur when people drink more than this amount.

Alcohol may stress the brain just enough that it makes brain cells more adaptable to larger stresses that are linked to increased Alzheimer’s risk. On the flip side, drinking too much may stress the brain beyond repair, so that excessive alcohol consumption leads to irreparable damage.

In the last few months, a number of studies have reported results that are generally in line with these recommendations. Much the reason that alcohol has different effects in different studies has to do with the amount of drinking the study participants are doing. An excellent example of this is a large-scale study that recently reported that people who drink moderately, defined as one drink per day for women and two for men, were at reduced risk of any form of cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease.(2)

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