Karin Klein: Don’t believe the hype on champagne’s effects on dementia

A questionable study claims that champagne, like in these New Year’s Eve cocktails, might help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
A questionable study claims that champagne, like in these New Year’s Eve cocktails, might help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Champagne might be the priciest substance yet that hasn’t been proved to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

A study dating back three years somehow was unearthed in recent months because – well, it’s champagne as a health food, combined with fear of Alzheimer’s. What could be clickier without adding Beyoncé’s new release?

“Cheers! Study reveals drinking champagne helps prevent Alzheimer’s,” Latin Times announced.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The study showed somewhat better spatial memory skills in geriatric rats that were given doses of champagne. Not humans. Not necessarily Alzheimer’s, or other kinds of memory. And not many rats – a couple dozen altogether.

What the study did reveal was a potentially interesting connection between champagne and certain memory-related skills in rats, one that would need to be replicated in larger studies and then put to the test in human trials.

But that doesn’t sound nearly as buzzy, does it?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a modest study on cheese. It also wasn’t new, but at least was more recent than the rodent-and-champagne research. It had been found by a writer who seemed to be suffering from a very slow news day, and it then was blown into the false claim that cheese is as addictive as crack cocaine.

This case is worse, in large part because England’s University of Reading, where the scientists did the rat study, fell prey to the need or desire to make headlines, suggesting that humans might reap memory benefits with a couple of glasses of bubbly each week.

It’s also one thing to make a silly claim about cheese, and another to encourage people to up their intake of expensive alcoholic beverages based on inadequate evidence. The press release didn’t bother noting, by the way, that a control group that imbibed another kind of alcoholic drink did as well as the champagne group.

The Reading scientists theorized that phenolic compounds that came from the champagne grapes might be responsible for improved memory. But the phenolic compounds are also found in red grapes. And grape juice. And, as a matter of fact, many kinds of fruits, especially berries.

Even the British National Health Service was compelled to jump in on this one, noting that if the phenolic compounds were the key, why didn’t the champagne rats do significantly better than the other rats taking in another kind of alcohol? The only group they outperformed, and only modestly, were the teetotaler rats.

“A slightly improved maze performance in a small number of rats does not necessarily translate into humans having a reduced risk of dementia,” the NHS noted.

Before heading to Trader Joe’s, keep in mind also that fish oil had its day in the sun as a potential defense against dementia, and then coconut oil, not to mention ginkgo biloba. Put to more rigorous testing, none of these proved their worth.

So why is champagne being touted by researchers as possibly the next big thing?

Consider this: The published paper on this doesn’t say who funded the study or anything about potential conflicts of interest on the part of scientists, the NHS said. Those kinds of disclosures have become more common in published papers, but not this time.

There is, however, an interesting footnote to the press release, about the university’s Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, which produced the research: “The department continues to work with the food industry over a wide range of industrially funded research projects and contracts under our Food Chain and Health research theme. This includes one-to-one funding from multinational companies through to small and medium sized enterprises.”

Decide for yourself.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at