Study: Light Drinking May Protect Cognitive Functioning

When someone is looking to lead a healthier lifestyle, one of the first recommendations made by doctors and nutritionists alike is to stop drinking alcohol. After all, alcohol kills brain cells, right? Well, a new study is sure to delight and validate drinkers the world over.

Researchers from the University of Georgia surprisingly conclude that a little bit of alcohol may actually be a good thing for the aging brain. Now, before you run off to the liquor store, remember the key phrase here is “a little bit.”

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After examining any associations between alcohol consumption and cognition over time among middle-aged and elderly Americans, the team at UGA concluded that light to moderate drinking may actually preserve brain functioning in old age.

“We know there are some older people who believe that drinking a little wine everyday could maintain a good cognitive condition,” says lead author Ruiyuan Zhang, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Public Health, in a release. “We wanted to know if drinking a small amount of alcohol actually correlates with a good cognitive function, or is it just a kind of survivor bias.”

Drinking and cognition

Now, this isn’t the first time that alcohol has shown some health benefits; plenty of projects link moderate drinking to improved heart outcomes. Furthermore, some prior studies suggest that alcohol may benefit the brain. However, none of those earlier initiatives focus specifically on cognition or clarity of thought. Nor do they observe the effects of alcohol over time, researchers say.

Using data originally collected for a nationally representative project called the Health and Retirement Study, the research team tracked the cognitive performance of 19,887 people over 10 years. Participants were surveyed on their overall health, lifestyle, and alcohol consumption habits every two years. For the purposes of the research, “light to moderate drinking” was defined as less than eight drinks per week for females and fewer than 15 drinks per week for men.

Meanwhile, cognitive functioning was measured via a series of tests focused on mental status, vocabulary, and memory. The sum total of all tests were compiled to assign each person a cumulative cognitive score.

The research team examined each participant’s overall cognitive performance over the 10 year period. Then they determined if their cognition was declining over time or staying about the same.

Light drinking good for the brain?

Surprisingly, adults who consumed one to two alcoholic drinks per day usually performed better on the cognition tests over time than non-drinkers. This puzzling relationship held true even after accounting for other factors such as age, education, or smoker status.

According to the study, the apparent optimal amount of weekly alcoholic drinks is 10-14. However, the study’s authors are quick to warn that their findings shouldn’t encourage non-drinkers to start picking up the bottle.

“It is hard to say this effect is causal,” Zhang says. “So, if some people don’t drink alcoholic beverages, this study does not encourage them to drink to prevent cognitive function decline.”

The protective effect of alcohol on cognition also seemed to be stronger among Caucasians than African Americans. Ultimately, though, Zhang says more research is necessary in order to flush out and further validate these findings.

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.