Drinking for a Better Brain?
Study Shows Possible Benefit From Moderate Alcohol Use for Older Women
June 7, 2006 -- A new study shows moderate drinking by women aged 65 and
older may have benefits for the brain.
Don’t skip over that word “may.” The full picture on drinking and thinking
is still a bit fuzzy.
The study appears in the early online edition of the journal
Neuroepidemiology. Researchers included Mark Espeland, PhD, of the
public health sciences department at Wake Forest University’s medical
Espeland and colleagues studied data on women aged 65 and older who took
part in the Women’s Health Initiative, a study on hormone therapy.
Espeland’s team found that, out of nearly 2,300 participants, those who
reported at least one alcoholic drink (beer, wine, or liquor) per day scored
higher on tests of verbal skills -- although not other mental skills -- than
Before delving into the details, know this: The researchers aren’t
recommending that anyone start drinking or expect mental sharpness from
Drinkers, Nondrinkers, Former Drinkers
In the study, the women reported their drinking habits over the previous
three months. These self-reports showed:
- No current alcohol use: 27%
- Less than one daily drink: 43%
- One or more daily drinks: 12%
- Former drinker: 17%
Smoking, hormone use (before or during the study), age, education, and other
factors were also noted.
Among women reporting one or more drinks per day, nearly two-thirds said
they had only one. Most of the other women in that group (about 29%) reported
two or three.
Among the former drinkers, about 18% said they quit drinking due to health
problems. Another 11% gave reasons unrelated to health, and the rest didn’t say
why they no longer drank.
The women -- who all spoke English and showed no signs of dementia -- were tested for verbal and spatial
skills, attention, working memory, motor speed, learning, and depression.
After adjusting for other factors, researchers found that the women who
reported having one or more drinks a day tested higher on verbal knowledge and
fluency than the nondrinkers.
However, those adjustments for other factors were important, and there’s no
way of knowing if they were foolproof.
Drinkers tended to have more education, be white, have higher family income,
be current smokers, have lower BMI (body mass index), not be taking
cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, and have no history of diabetes, high
blood pressure, or heart disease.
Espeland’s team didn’t stop there. They did another analysis that added more
than 4,900 Women’s Health Initiative participants to the 2,300 or so women they
had already studied.
Once again, women reporting more than one drink a day scored better – but
not by much – on tests than teetotalers.
The differences didn’t seem to be due to chance but they were “small” --
about 1 unit on a 100-unit scale, Espeland and colleagues write.
The tests were done only once. So it’s not known whether the women’s test
scores would have changed over time. And the surveys only checked the women’s
drinking habits over the previous three months, not their entire lives.