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10/23/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2014

The Surprising Health Benefit Of Alcohol For Older Adults

Mireya Acierto via Getty Images

It's no secret that alcohol abuse can cause a variety of health problems, including damage to the liver. However, a new study shows that light consumption of alcohol in older age is associated with better memory among people age 60 and older.

Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, University of Kentucky, and University of Maryland found that light to moderate amounts alcohol consumption was associated with better performance on tests of episodic memory among people in this age group.

The study, detailed in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, analyzed data such as drinking habits, medical histories and genetic disease risks from more than 660 patients in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort. These patients also completed a battery of cognitive and memory tests.

Researchers also found that drinking just one or two alcoholic drinks per day was associated with a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain that's key to episodic memory -- or the ability to recall details of specific events. Previous studies involving animals showed that moderate alcohol consumption can help preserve the hippocampus by promoting new cell growth in the part of the brain vital to memory skills and the nervous system.

“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,” said lead study author Brian Downer from the University of Texas in a press release.

Downer added that the amount of alcohol consumption had no impact on overall mental ability.

It’s important to note that researchers only found an association between light to moderate alcohol consumption in older age and memory performance; the study does not establish a causal link between the two.

Although the potential benefits of light to moderate alcohol consumption to cognitive learning and memory later in life have been consistently reported, extended periods of alcohol abuse -- often defined as having five or more alcoholic beverages during a single drinking occasion -- is known to be harmful to the brain and overall health.

Indeed a recent study conducted by the University of Exeter Medical School found older adults with a history of problem drinking in midlife to be more than twice as likely to have severe cognitive and memory impairment than those who don't. Still another study published in 2014 by the University College London found men who are moderate or heavy alcohol drinkers can show signs of cognitive impairment up to six years faster than those who drink lightly or abstain altogether.

Heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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