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Research Summary

Heart and Mind: Is Moderate Alcohol Consumption Good for Your Brain, Too?

Recent neuropsychological studies suggest that moderate drinkers experience less cognitive dysfunction than abstainers do. Researchers in Australia sought to replicate this observation in 7485 community-dwelling people across 3 age cohorts (20–24, 40–44, and 60–64 years). Analyses were adjusted for age and sex.

  • Moderate drinkers (up to 14 drinks per week for men and 7 drinks for women) performed significantly better on all cognitive measures than did abstainers and occasional drinkers.* They also performed better than did hazardous drinkers, but only among men and on approximately half of the measures.
  • When analyses were controlled for education and race, these results were attenuated and became nonsignificant for male hazardous drinkers.

In additional analyses, these researchers explored whether factors associated with both drinking levels and cognitive performance could explain the observed differences between abstainers and moderate drinkers.

  • The oldest cohort had the most confounders while the youngest cohort had the fewest.
  • Sex, education, and extroversion were confounders shared among the age groups. Lung function and grip strength were confounders in both the older cohorts.

Comments:

Moderate drinkers had better cognitive functioning than did nondrinkers, occasional drinkers, and heavier drinkers. The evaluated confounders only partially explain the differences reported among these groups. Though these cross-sectional associations are intriguing, one cannot yet know if alcohol consumption is the cause, the effect, or an epiphenomenon. Ongoing follow-up of these samples should provide stronger evidence to support any causal inference.

Peter D. Friedmann, MD, MPH
*Abstainers did not drink alcohol in the past year, occasional drinkers drank alcohol monthly or less, and hazardous drinkers drank >28 drinks per week (>14 for women).

Reference:

Rodgers B, Windsor TD, Anstey KJ, et al. Non-linear relationships between cognitive function and alcohol consumption in young, middle-aged and older adults: the PATH Through Life Project. Addiction. 2005;100(9):1280–1290.

Anstey KJ, Windsor TD, Rodgers B, et al. Lower cognitive test scores observed in alcohol abstainers are associated with demographic, personality, and biological factors: the PATH Through Life Project. Addiction. 2005;100(9):1291–1301.

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