As a doctor who takes care of older adults, I am often asked two types of questions about drinking or alcohol consumption.

An 80-year-old male patient, who is “sharp as a bell,” recently told me that for the past many years his singular vice has been having  “a martini with two olives” every night before dinner. He wanted to know if this was medically acceptable, or whether he should quit.

An 84-year-old female patient, who is cognitively intact and a life-time teetotaler, had read that mild-moderate alcohol consumption (1-2 drinks/day) was good for the heart and may even decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

She asks: “Would you recommend that I start having a daily drink?”

Two studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver on Wednesday help us to better address these questions.

One study followed a group of women 65 or older who started out as non-drinker, mild drinkers, or moderate drinkers (no heavy drinkers, please).  After 20 years, they were evaluated for memory problems and dementia.  The women who went from non-drinking to any level of drinking increased their chances of developing memory or dementia problems by 200 percent.  Also, the women who were moderate drinkers at the start and stayed that way did not have a lower risk of developing problems than the ones who didn’t drink the whole way through.  So going from teetotaler to any level of drinking was actually harmful.  Being a drinker from the start didn’t necessarily hurt, but it wasn’t protective.

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