Light to moderate drinking may preserve brain function in older age, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.
Low to moderate drinking was defined as less than eight drinks per week for women and less than 15 drinks per week for men.
The findings support prior research which found that, generally, one standard drink a day for women and two a day for men — which is the US guidance — appears to offer some cognitive benefits.
“We know there are some older people who believe that drinking a little wine everyday could maintain a good cognitive condition,” said lead author Ruiyuan Zhang, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Public Health.
“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.”
Regular, moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to promote heart health and some research points to a similar protective benefit for brain health. However, many of these studies were not designed to isolate the effects of alcohol on cognition or did not measure effects over time.
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Zhang and his team developed a way to track cognition performance over 10 years using participant data from the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study.
During the study, a total of 19,887 participants completed surveys every two years about their health and lifestyle, including questions on drinking habits. Light to moderate drinking is defined as fewer than eight drinks per week for women and 15 drinks or fewer per week among men.
There was one caveat, however: The study of nearly 20,000 Americans tracked for an average of nine years found that the brain benefit from alcohol mostly applied to white people, not Black people. The reasons for that remain unclear.
Among whites, however, low to moderate drinking “was significantly associated with a consistently high cognitive function trajectory and a lower rate of cognitive decline,” compared to people who never drank, the team reported June 29 in JAMA Network Open.
The study couldn’t prove that moderate drinking directly caused the preservation of thinking and memory, only that there was an association.
The range of drinking considered “low to moderate” in the study was set at less than eight drinks per week for women and less than 15 drinks per week for men. Drink more frequently, and any benefit to the brain begins to fade and even turn into possible harm, the researchers stressed.