Drinking and Memory Loss in Later Years

42-20045584Yesterday, I walked through the garage at the assisted living development where my mother lives. When I got to the elevator, I bumped into a 20-something pushing a cart loaded with six cases of wine, two of which were alcohol free. We waited side by side for the elevator to take us up to the lobby, when he said, “Boy, these old people can drink.” I agreed, then pointed out that my mother is one of the non-alcoholic wine drinkers. Didn’t feel the need to explain the how or why, and after we exited we said our “Have a good day” and walked in our separate directions.

Over the last several years, I have watched my mother’s memory come and go, lapse and return. She has had an MRI of her brain and does not have Alzheimer’s. But she does have a form of dementia that is, according to her doctor, related to heavy alcohol use in past  years.

study conducted in Brazil focused specifically on cognitive problems caused by heavy alcohol use among 1,145 people who were 60 years old or older. The study found that 8.2 percent of the 419 men and 726 women studied were heavy drinkers, or drinking at levels that are considered high risk. (For women, heavy drinking is four drinks or more during a day or more than seven drinks a week.)

One of the more surprising findings of the study was that heavy drinking affects the cognitive function of women more than men. “The effects of heavy alcohol use on memory and other cognitive functions were more evident in women,” said Marcos Antonio Lopes, the author of the study. “Our findings suggest that alcohol use does not have a linear relationship with cognitive decline.”

In other words, women who continue to drink heavily into their senior years run the risks of losing cognitive function and are more prone therefore to falls and significant memory loss.

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The Law of Equivalent Drinking

by UnknownRonna Benjamin

Mike and I watched the swirling snows of Nemo that Friday afternoon, curled up on the couch in front of a roaring fire. Carole King radio played on Pandora over the stereo. We each had a glass of tequila splashed with Cointreau, in which floated a few wedges of three-week-old lime. Ahhh, the benefits of an empty nest! It was a fine afternoon for a storm.

We relaxed as we soaked up the warmth of the fire and the liquor.  And then…I couldn’t breathe.  I began to blow my nose.  My throat was on fire, and I began to sneeze. I wanted to amputate my head.

Not knowing where to turn to ease my misery, I grabbed my laptop so I could let the world know how miserable I was, and my spirits were lifted when I saw an email from my daughter in Abu Dhabi.  The subject of her email was: “Check out this article…you guys are right…duh.”

I perked right up.  Screw the cold!  My kid thought we were “right”!  And she was reading the LA Times!

I immediately clicked through to the link in her email.  It was to an article that had appeared on February 6, 2013 in the LA Times Health section,  The article was about incompatible drinking and divorce, and sure enough, it confirmed we were right.

The LA Times article focused on a Norwegian study of 19,977 married couples (which, of course, begged the question, “couldn’t they have gotten 23 more?”) that proved that spouses who consumed roughly the same amount of alcohol (“compatible” drinkers) were less likely to divorce than pairs where one partner was a heavy drinker and the other was not. (Interestingly, the study indicated it was worse if the woman was the drinker and the man was not.)

I asked Mike to freshen our drinks in celebration, because we were so very ahead of the (LA) times; we have been talking about this “compatible drinking” theory with family and friends for decades.  Many moons ago, without spending a dime on research (unless you factor in the cost of the alcohol) my brilliant husband came up with the Law of Equivalent Drinking, or as we call it, LED (not to be confused with Light Emitting Diode).  We could have saved them a lot of money if they had just asked us.

LED, or the Law of Equivalent Drinking, as Mike explained it one night over a round of martinis with friends, provides that everyone–married or not- gets along best with people who drink roughly the same amount. Having legal backgrounds, we called it a law and not a theory.  Besides, TED would be taken soon enough–though ironically, this indeed has proved to be an Idea Worth Spreading.   We toasted to shedding the light on LED the night of Mike’s epiphany, and have done so with friends many times since.

The fact is, we tend to gravitate toward, and get along best with, people who drink like we do–and we know others do too. Mike enjoys the company of men who can appreciate a fine scotch.  We like to share a bottle of wine with dinner.  We like to see the excitement in our friends’ faces when we bring over an oversized glass container of fruit-infused vodka.  We like to start our Saturday night out with a martini.  It’s ok if it’s dirty, but if you pass altogether, it changes the mood.

Like any law, LED has its exceptions.  I have a few wonderful girlfriends that are truly special to me- even though they order a diet coke instead of a glass of wine at dinner.  I get that some people do not like to drink.  I get that some people cannot have a drink and of course I respect that.   But on the whole, I’m just sayin’….we spend an awful lot of time with people who drink like we do.

Mike may not bring me a box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day (though if he does, it should be dark chocolate with sea salt.)  He probably won’t bring me a dozen roses either.  But I do know for sure that we will share a toast over a nice bottle of Cabernet this Valentine’s Day. And there is no doubt in my mind, that because of LED, we will finish that bottle.

*This essay was originally published on 

Ronna Benjamin is the Managing Editor of BetterAfter50.com. About the time Ronna  turned 50, she had an epiphany.  After 28 years of practicing law, she realized she didn’t want to be a real estate attorney, and jumped into the world of writing.  She never looked back.  Ronna writes humorously about the things BA50’s are concerned about:  adult children, aging parents, illness, anxiety and insomnia, to name a few.  She is a native Bostonian and loves to spend time with her wonderful husband and three adult children.  She also loves to cook, sail, ski, run and bike.




Feeling Creative? Cornell Wants You to Name a Wine Grape.

red wine grapeFor those of you who like coming up with names, here’s your chance to give one to a wine grape. Or two. And today, August 6, is the last day to submit your proposal.

Scientists at Cornell University have asked the public for names for two new grape varieties that will be released from their breeding program in 2013, according to an article on Cornell’s Chronicle Online. Grape breeder Bruce Reisch, who is accepting name submissions at bruce.reisch@cornell.edu, came up with the two new varieties—”a cold-hardy white wine grape and an innovative organic dark red.”

The scientists are looking for names that are unique (a potential challenge with some 7,000 other grape varieties), marketable, reasonably easy to pronounce and conjure positive connotations, said Reisch. Currently, the new varieties’ names are NY76.0844.24 and NY95.0301.01. Shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with something a bit more inspiring.

Cornell, with a host of new grape varieties in development, has been breeding grapes since 1888. It’s not a quick process, though, and can take 30 to 40 years for a new variety to be released, and several more before the grapes appear in commercially available wine.

Asking the public to participate and creating a social media campaign are Reisch’s effort to create some buzz about the new varieties, according to the Chronicle Online piece. “There are so many different flavors. Why shouldn’t people get excited about new varieties?,” said Reisch. “They keep things interesting for the consumer and are often better for growers.”

The winning names will be announced at the Viticulture 2013 conference in February in Rochester, NY.

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Drinking in College May Lead to the Hookah

college kids smoking hookahDecades before Miley Cyrus revealed to college-age women everywhere that the hookah, or water pipe, is the latest must-have accessory, I found one prominently placed in my childhood home. I was 15 and had just returned from a summer at sleepaway camp. In my absence, my parents had traveled to Turkey where they purchased said hookah and displayed it proudly in our home’s lower level, not far from the billiard table. I suppose they thought it was a cool visual—I honestly don’t believe it was ever used for anything other than viewing.

Fast forward 30 years, and now it’s me, my husband and our children walking the streets of Istanbul. Hookahs are sold and smoked everywhere—as a matter of fact it’s not a strange sight to see people of all ages smoking the tobacco (much of it is flavored–pineapple? vanilla anyone?) from a hookah while playing chess in outdoor cafes.

It never occurred to me to smoke from a hookah, and I never imagined my kids would want to–or even have the opportunity. But obviously, I wasn’t keeping up with the times. According to new research from the Miriam Hospital’s Center for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine, almost one quarter of college women try smoking tobacco from a hookah for the first time during their freshman year. Did I mention my daughter just finished her first year of college?

The study, which was published online by the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors journal, revealed a potential link between hookah smoking and alcohol and marijuana use. An article from Science Daily reported that “researchers found the more alcohol women consumed, the more likely they were to experiment with hookah smoking, while women who used marijuana engaged in hookah smoking more frequently than their peers.”

The problem is that many college students believe mistakenly that smoking from a hookah is safer than cigarettes. Hookahs, however, have been linked to lung cancer and other diseases similar to those brought on by cigarette smoking.

“The popularity and social nature of hookah smoking, combined with the fact that college freshmen are more likely to experiment with risky behavior, could set the stage for a potential public health issue, given what we know about the health risks of hookah smoking,” said lead author Robyn L. Fielder, M.S., a research intern at The Miriam Hospital’s Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine, in the article on Science Daily. Fielder says the findings corroborate prior research showing strong correlations between hookah and other substance use, but their research is the first to show that alcohol and marijuana use are prospectively related to hookah initiation.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), consisted of a survey of 483 first-year female college students and asked about their hookah use before college, followed by 12 monthly online surveys about their experience with hookah smoking. Of the 343 participants who did not report precollege hookah use, 79 students (or 23 percent) tried smoking a hookah during their freshman year.

As a parent, the concern is naturally that your kid is going to try this or that because that’s what other kids are trying. Hookah smoking seems a lot more enticing, I imagine, to many students who see cigarettes as outdated–and practically verboten in every public place anyway. But if they do a little research, they’ll learn that hookah smoking is not exactly a new phenomenon and originated in ancient Persia and India.

I have not asked my daughter yet if she’s come across any hookah-smoking parties at school. But with this new research, I’m inclined to ask. I’m not sure I’ll bring her to my parents’ house anytime soon, however, for fear that she’ll see their imported hookah and ask if she can bring it back to school for her sophomore year.


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Latest Study Reports Some Drinking During Pregnancy May Be Okay

When I was pregnant with each of my three children, I did not drink any alcohol during my first trimester. The first twelve weeks of the baby’s development were the most crucial I learned, and I wasn’t going to jeopardize that. But my doctor told me it was okay to drink a small amount of wine thereafter, so I gingerly sipped an occasional glass of wine without worry. I know that many people refuse to take even a sip of alcohol during those nine long months. But that wasn’t me. And it wasn’t one of the essayists in our forthcoming anthology, Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press, Sept 2012), who wrote how her British obstetrician recognized the all-or-nothing American attitude and was quite comfortable with her patients drinking every once in a while.

Now, the pregnant women of the world who’d like to have a guilt-free, occasional glass of wine can perhaps do so (emphasis on perhaps). The results of a series of research studies from Denmark, published in the BJOG Journal, suggest that “low to moderate weekly drinking in early pregnancy  had no significant effect on neurodevelopment of children up to five years, nor did binge drinking.”

The study focused on children’s intelligence and found no differences in test performance between the children whose mothers consumed up to 8 drinks a week during pregnancy, compared to children whose mothers did not drink any alcohol. There was, however, one result that surfaced associating a lower attention span in five year old children whose mother drank more than 9 drinks per week. These children were also found to be at a risk nearly five times higher of having a low IQ compared to children of nondrinkers.

The research was drawn from 1,628 Danish women and their children–almost a third of all Danish women who were pregnant during the span of years from 1997 to 2003. The average age of the women was 31; fifty percent were first-time mothers; 12 percent were single; and 31 percent said they smoked during their pregnancy. In all of the studies, the researchers controlled for a variety of factors that may potentially affect a child’s brain development, such as maternal intelligence and smoking.

An important point to note–and highlighted in the journal article–is that a drink in these studies is defined by the the Danish National Board of Health and is equal to 12 grams of pure alcohol. The amount of alcohol in a drink can vary greatly from country to country, however, and in the United States there are 14 grams of pure alcohol in a standard drink. This is the equivalent of a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5 ounce shot of hard liquor, according to Rethinking Drinking, a website covering alcohol and health.

In a statement, the study’s authors said, “Our findings show that low to moderate drinking is not associated with adverse effects on the children aged 5. However, despite these findings, additional large scale studies should be undertaken to further investigate the possible effects.”

Though some women may feel relieved to learn about the latest study results, it is unlikely the new information will quell the controversy surrounding drinking during pregnancy, as many doctors continue to warn against potential disorders that the study may not have considered. “I would still caution women about drinking during their pregnancies,” Dr. Jennifer Wu, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay. “There may be subtle neurobehavioral changes that were not picked up in the study.”

“Although it’s still best for pregnant women to avoid alcohol, these results suggest that small amounts may not be a serious concern,” said HealthDay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still urge women not to drink at any time while pregnant, says Dr. Jacquelyn Betrand, who represents the CDC and served as co-author of three of the studies: “This study doesn’t change our recommendation.”

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