An ingredient in red wine may help to keep older people steady on their feet, research suggests.

Tests on ageing mice showed that a molecule found in dark grapes and red wine improved their sense of balance.

After four weeks, animals fed the compound resveratrol were able to navigate a narrow beam as well as young mice. Without the supplement, the older mice tended to stumble.

The findings may have implications for preventing life-threatening falls in older people, say scientists.

See also: Red Wine: Health Benefit Or Health Hazard?

Lead researcher Dr Jane Cavenaugh, from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, US, said: "Our study suggests that a natural compound like resveratrol, which can be obtained either through dietary supplementation or diet itself, could actually decrease some of the motor deficiencies that are seen in our ageing population.

"And that would, therefore, increase an ageing person's quality of life and decrease their risk of hospitalisation due to slips and falls."

Resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant, may protect nerves from damage caused by destructive "free radical" oxygen molecules and activate biological pathways linked to cell survival, say the scientists.

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia.

Dr Cavenaugh pointed out that resveratrol was poorly absorbed by the body, making wine consumption an unrealistic way to obtain it. A 150-pound person would have to drink almost 700 four ounce glasses of red wine a day to absorb beneficial levels of the compound.

However, even tiny effects of resveratrol in the brain might be enough to help prevent older people taking serious tumbles, Dr Cavenaugh added.

Her team was now investigating man-made compounds that mimic the effects of resveratrol and might be more bioavailable.

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