Home > Aging, Memory > A drink a day keeps cognitive decline at bay…IF you’re one of these lucky people

A drink a day keeps cognitive decline at bay…IF you’re one of these lucky people

With the holidays quickly approaching, many of us will be reuniting with family members at our grandparents’ houses. Someone will inadvertently spike the punch and then you’ll have grandparents, aunts, and uncles a little on the tipsy side. We’ve all heard that a glass of red wine each day is beneficial for your health but how true is this for the older folk in our family? Is it only red wine that has these effects? Several studies have suggested that it can actually be good for the elderly to have a few drinks per week. Alcohol is protective to the cardiovascular system due to its anti-inflammatory effects. This can in turn have positive effects on the health of the brain, which improves cognition (how quickly we think, how well we remember, etc.). Can alcohol be used as a sort of protective substance?

There are some people who possess a gene (APOE e4) variant that is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and is associated with generally lower cognitive function (slower processing speed, more difficulty remembering things) and more rapid cognitive decline with age. The researchers in one study were looking to see if alcohol can improve the cognitive lives of these folks and reduce cognitive decline since it has such beneficial effects on those without the gene variant.
In a recent study by Downer, Zanjani, and Fardo (2013), they wanted to find out whether alcohol can have protective effects on cognition for people with and without the APOE e4 gene. They also wanted to see whether it mattered if alcohol was consumed during midlife or late life. To do this, they recruited folks from an ongoing longitudinal study, the Framingham Heart Study, and had them answer questions on their alcohol consumption (how many cans of beer, glasses of wine, cocktails per week on average) and complete a number of cognitive tests which measured their visual memory, verbal memory, and new learning.
What they found was that alcohol consumption during midlife does not affect the trajectory of memory and learning during late life. They also found that those who do not carry the APOE e4 gene variant have improved cognitive outcomes when they have moderate alcohol consumption (7-14 drinks/week) during late life compared with those who do not drink at all. They found a different result when people with the APOE e4 gene (about 10% of the sample) consumed the same amount of alcohol in late life: they were actually worse off than those with the gene who didn’t drink.

Research shows that having 7-14 drinks per week (or 1-2 drinks a day) in late life promotes resiliency against cognitive decline in those without the e4 gene.

This suggests that light to moderate alcohol consumption in late life (65+) is beneficial for those who do not carry the APOE e4 gene – more so than not drinking at all. This also suggests that those with the gene should not drink as it has an additive effect on an already shaky cognitive trajectory.
Since the majority of people do not carry the APOE e4 gene, it is probably safe to assume that the senior citizens in your life will be safe to drink this holiday season. You might even want to encourage it! Remember – it doesn’t matter which alcohol is being consumed. If you want to go out and have your DNA tested for the APOE e4 gene, it’s up to you. If you do happen to have it, the results of this study suggest that you can drink in midlife, but please don’t after you retire.
So this holiday season, don’t be afraid to give your grandma that spiked eggnog or to let your grandpa have his daily bottle of beer – it may just help improve their cognition!


Downer, B., Zanjani, F., & Fardo, D. (2013). The relationship between midlife and late life alcohol consumption, APOE e4 and the decline in learning and memory among older adults. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 1-6.

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  1. March 14th, 2014 at 11:20 | #1

    I like how you structured your post by connecting the topic to a real life situation in the beginning and then ending your post by revisiting that example — it really helped to solidify the science through the lens of an easy, understandable situation. However, I wanted to know more about which types of memory were impacted by alcohol consumption in those who had the gene. Were they unable to retain new information? Did they have a poor visual memory? Could they not understand verbal cues? Additionally, I suggest looking into the cause of the memory decline. Due to the nature of the gene — it has been linked to general cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s — it would be useful to examine the results through the lens of alcohol’s impact on the body. Studies on alcoholism have shown that long-term alcohol use leads to brain matter decay; thus, perhaps those who have this gene are already predisposed to brain matter decay (studies have suggested that this, in part, is the nature of Dementia and Alzheimer’s) and thus the combination of the gene and alcohol simply speeds up that decay. Though this inclusion would not impact your overall point that drinking later in life is harmful for those who have this gene, it would strength your argument by providing a possible explanation for those results. Additionally, I wonder if any studies have looked at how drinking earlier in life can impact those with this gene. It would be an interesting follow-up study!

  2. March 19th, 2014 at 14:58 | #2

    I found this post particularly interesting due to the often conflicting results studies provide on the effects of alcohol. I feel like I am constantly hearing that drinking is good for you, or bad for you, or good for you but only if you consume a very specific amount and always appreciate clarification on the matter. I also like that you conjure the image of a holiday party with drunk relatives in your reader’s mind, it is very relatable and entertaining. However, I am left wondering about the APOE e4 gene. What is it’s relevance and importance to the general population? What proteins does it produce and what is it’s function in the body? Similarly, I found some of the language towards the end of your post a bit confusing because it’s not whether or not people carry the APOE gene that determines their cognitive trajectory in relation to drinking, but whether or not that gene is the e4 variant. Also, I wonder if how this genetic variation causes changes in cognition? It would be nice to hear some of the author’s hypotheses on which cognitive mechanism of action is interacting with APOE e4 to decrease participant’s cognitive abilities. Overall, this is a very interesting study and I like that you added a holiday theme to your post! Your last line is especially clever!

  3. March 20th, 2014 at 14:24 | #3

    Interesting post, I’ve read a few research papers on both the does-related (Dry et al., 2012) and biphasic effects of alcohol on cognitive functioning (Addicott et al., 2007), and how alcohol impairs cognitive function, but these studies were only conducted in the short term or when the subject was under the influence of alcohol. The neurological effects of alcohol have been well documented, but only in the immediate term. This was the first time I have seen a longitudinal alcohol related study and it is quite interesting to see that alcohol can be beneficial in the long run, despite what I would have thought based on other research. It makes me curious to the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, which would provide a great area for further research.

    It would also be interesting to collect similar data to that of the study you posted, but starting from a much younger age when the brain is still developing, and to monitor the effects alcohol might have on a developing brain many years later in life.

    Again, interesting post, thanks for sharing!

  4. March 20th, 2014 at 23:49 | #4

    Very interesting article, especially considering we just learned about Alzheimer’s and the APOE e4 gene in Biology 164, and we recently had Dog Head weekend! I remember learning that the APOE e4 gene is found in about 25-30% of the population (don’t worry, I just double checked at NIH.com), and is present in about 40% of people who develop late-onset Alzheimer’s. I did not know that the APOE e4 gene is associated with “generally lower cognitive function” even before the development of Alzheimer’s.
    I wonder what exactly about the alcohol/APOE e4 gene interaction is causing cognition to worsen in those individuals? Alcohol is indeed a toxin, so it’s not very surprising that a negative relationship exists. What is surprising is how alcohol could possibly increase the cognitive abilities of anyone. I’ve heard that one or two drinks with dinner doesn’t hurt any, but I’ve never heard of alcohol increasing cognitive ability.
    On a personal note, my grandfather has been dealing with Alzheimer’s for over a year and a half now. I wonder how alcohol consumption affects those who already have Alzheimer’s? He certainly drinks his fair share of wine, and probably has for most of his adult life. I’d be very interested to see if he has the APOE e4 gene. As a follow-up study, it would be interesting if they were able to test the effects of alcohol on people who developAlzheimer’s, but do not have the APOE e4 gene.

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