Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, University of Kentucky, and University of Maryland found that for people 60 and older moderate alcohol consumption was linked with a larger volume in the hippocampus, a brain region critical for episodic memory.
The relationship between light alcohol consumption and episodic memory goes away if hippocampal volume is factored in, providing new evidence that hippocampal functioning is the critical factor in these improvements.
The study used data from more than 660 patients in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort in the US.
These patients completed surveys on their alcohol consumption and demographics, a battery of neuropsychological assessments, the presence or absence of the genetic Alzheimer's disease risk factor APOE e4 and MRIs of their brains.
The researchers found that light and moderate alcohol consumption in older people is associated with higher episodic memory and is linked with larger hippocampal brain volume.
Amount of alcohol consumption had no impact on executive function or overall mental ability.
"There were no significant differences in cognitive functioning and regional brain volumes during late life according to reported midlife alcohol consumption status," said lead author Brian Downer, UTMB Sealy Center on Aging postdoctoral fellow.
"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," Downer said.
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 abusing alcohol, often defined as having five or more alcoholic beverages during a single drinking occasion is known to be harmful to the brain.
The findings were detailed in the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias.

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