Moderate Alcohol Use: Brain Booster?

Study Ties Moderate Drinking to Better Mental Test Scores in Women

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 06, 2006

April 6, 2006 -- Women who drink moderate amounts of alcohol may have better mental function than heavy drinkers or teetotalers, according to a new study.

But the study, published in Stroke's early online edition, doesn't recommend that anyone turn to alcohol for better brain power.

Columbia University's Clinton Wright, MD, MS, and colleagues studied 2,215 people living in New York City -- northern Manhattan, to be exact.

Participants reported their lifetime drinking history, took a brief mental skills test, gave blood samples, and got ultrasound images of their carotid arteries, which bring blood to the brain. The researchers used those images to measure plaque thickness.

In women -- but not men -- moderate drinking was associated with better scores on the mental skills test, the study shows. Plaque thickness in the carotid arteries didn't change the results.

Alcohol Consumption

Wright's team defined a drink as 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

Participants' alcohol consumption fell into five categories:

  • Lifelong abstainer (509 participants)
  • Past drinker (494 participants)
  • Less than one drink per week (300 participants)
  • At least one weekly drink but no more than two daily drinks (796 participants)
  • More than two daily drinks (116 participants)

Participants were in their late 60s, on average. They took the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE), a brief check of skills including attention, immediate and short-term memory, language, and the ability to follow simple verbal and written commands.

Among women, higher test scores were associated with drinking at least one weekly drink but no more than two daily drinks, the study shows.

Seeking Diversity Among Participants

Other studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption may cut the risk of dementia and cognitive decline. But most of that research has been done on whites, note Wright and colleagues.

Wright's team made diversity a priority. Hispanics accounted for 54% of the participants. Twenty-five percent were black. Whites made up 21% of the group.

The goal was to add more detail about possible brain benefits from moderate drinking, especially in minorities. The tests and interviews were done in Spanish or English.

For consistency's sake, all participants came from northern Manhattan. That was "important," Wright says in a news release, "so they would all be subject to the same environmental influences."

What About Men?

Several other studies have found "a benefit of moderate alcohol intake in relation to cognitive function in women but not men," the researchers write.

Those studies -- like Wright's new report -- were one-time checks of mental skills and drinking. Participants weren't followed over time to see if those benefits lasted.

In the news release, Wright calls the MMSE "not a very sensitive test" for checking certain mental skills. Another study using a more sensitive test is under way in the same group, he notes.

An American Heart Association (AHA) news release recommends that people who drink do so in moderation. "This means having an average of no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women," the news release states.

The AHA doesn't recommend that nondrinkers start drinking to seek health benefits. Drinking alcohol may raise the risk of problems including high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, accidents, and alcoholism, the AHA notes.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Wright, C. Stroke, early online edition, April 7, 2006. Tufts New England Medical Center: "The Mini Mental State Examination." News release, American Stroke Association.
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