Tuesday, August 28, 2012

of mice, men and merlot


The latest round of enthusiastic news coverage about a study proclaiming that red wine improves balance and prevents falls in the elderly raises some important questions. First a summary of the study, which was presented at a recent conference but not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal: Lab mice fed high doses of resveratrol, a potent antioxidant from red wine, maintained better balance and mobility as they aged. Their nerve tissue resisted the effects of age, and follow-up studies showed that the neurons treated with resveratrol survived toxic doses of a brain chemical called dopamine, which causes stress similar to aging leading to cell death.

The implications of the study were widely interpreted to mean that resveratrol, and by extension red wine, could improve mobility in seniors and prevent fall that can lead to hip fractures and other problems. There are a few really important caveats here though: first, the doses of resveratrol were extraordinarily high, not achievable with wine consumption. Secondly, it isn’t known if equivalent levels are even achievable with oral consumption by humans. Mice are not people, and there are a lot of things that seem like they should work based on mouse studies that don’t pan out in human clinical trials. (An example is an anti-cancer drug called camptothecin, which kills human cancers when transplanted onto mice, but not so well in humans because it is inactivated by a protein in the bloodstream.) So as intriguing as the recent study is, it is not reasonable to presume that resveratrol or red wine would work in people.

There are some interesting lines of research pointing back to red wine though. For one, it is well-documented in several large population studies that wine drinkers maintain better brain function in later years. And though it is tempting to credit resveratrol for the benefits of wine, other studies show that alcohol consumption in moderation is linked to better bone density.  Resveratrol does come into the picture when looking at muscle mass and athletic performance, which may favorably impact mobility in seniors.

In the end it comes down to that same simple things that I have been espousing here all along: Wine drinking is good for prevention of many of the deleterious effects of age. Resveratrol is interesting but does not by itself explain the benefits of moderate drinking. And studies on mice mean little without follow-up clinical studies on humans.