When a research study made recent headlines for suggesting that sipping two-three glasses of champagne a week might prevent Alzheimer’s disease, people everywhere responded with a collective cry of “I’ll drink to that!”
I was not among them. Alcohol and Alzheimer’s are a toxic cocktail for me.
A former rank-and-file member of the “Mommy-Deserves-Nightly-Wine Club,” I woke up on my son’s 11th birthday and realized that I’d had been drinking myself silly since 2004. Somehow, a glass or two of Champagne or Chardonnay in the evening had turned into a martini and a bottle of wine every night.
I’d relied on phrases like “it’s been a long day” and “the French do it” to justify glass after glass. Whenever stories came out linking red wine with improved brain function, I’d toast to the very convenient and good news. After all, Alzheimer’s runs in my family, as do desperate efforts to stave it off.
My dad actually decided to become a neurologist after watching his own dad suffer and die from Alzheimer’s. So terrified of losing his memory – as observed in his papa and his patients – Dr. Bercaw experimented on himself with diet supplements.
He tracked down anything that offered the possibility of saving brain cells by killing free radicals: Omega 3s, 6s, 9s; vitamins A, B, C, D and E; ginkgo biloba, rosemary and sage; folic acid; flaxseed. By age 60 he was taking 78 tablets a day. He did crossword puzzles and Sudoku all day long. He exercised for an hour, three days a week. He sipped one glass of red wine a night.
It was no use. My father died from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease on April 2, 2012. He was 73, the exact age at which his father succumbed.
My drinking increased with a vengeance. Under the influence of vodka and pinot grigio or noir, I could temporarily forget that I was the next Bercaw up to bat for what killed him. For the next two years, 11 months and 26 days, I literally drowned my sorrows.
Regardless of whether I was using it to stave off worries about my gene pool or to reward my efforts at parenting, alcohol had the opposite effect. I didn’t remember putting my son to bed some nights. I forgot about appointments I’d made and emails I’d sent. I was hung-over all morning; craving booze all afternoon. Not much time for left for clear thoughts or vivid recollections. The line between alcoholism and Alzheimer’s blurred. My brain straddling two memory-stealing maladies.
I did manage to hold onto resentful recollections of my father doing so much math that he’d forget my presence. Instead of making new memories with me, he chose to do mind-preserving long equations. Though one time he paused long enough to make me swear that I’d shoot him if he showed any signs of turning out like his father.
And I knew that I didn’t want to turn out like him, even if my destiny was grandfather’s disease, too. So I did what I could to forget them both in the hopes that the side effect might, ironically, protect me from dementia down the road. But when my young son commented on how much alcohol I was drinking – and how it seemed more important to me than he did – I decided to rewrite history and re-imagine the future.
I haven’t had a drink in 8 months, and already I’m healthier, happier and better able to face the challenges I feared. Alzheimer’s disease may already be settling into my grey matter, but I no longer live under the haze of alcohol. For now, my memory is greatly improved.
I look at the pictures I’ve posted on Facebook and observe a new dividing line in my life: with or without a glass of wine in hand. I prefer the latter – and the occasional latte. And when I come across posts heralding the inconclusive rat-and-champagne memory study, I think of those grapes with nothing but wrath.
Besides, according to reliable reports, the experiment in question was conducted on a mere 24 rodents. Researchers gave three separate groupings (eight rats in each) either a small portion of Champagne, a different alcoholic drink, or a non-alcoholic one. Then, the rats’ performance in seeking treats in a maze were tested. The study lasted six weeks.
Five of the eight champagne-drinking rats successfully completed the maze, compared to an average of four in the other groups. And boom the Internet exploded! In the media frenzy, dementia-fearing parents everywhere were handed a good reason to embrace their adult beverages. For the time being, extensive research on the adverse effects of alcohol on the brain were conveniently forgotten.
I admire (even envy) anyone who can stick to two or three glasses of wine, or so, per week. Cheers to moderation, health and happiness! But for me, the only rewarding — and most memorable — way to end the day is with the bubbly presence of my son, not Champagne.