"Our research confirms other studies suggesting that for older women who choose to drink and are not restricted from drinking for medical reasons moderate alcohol intake is not harmful for cognition and may provide some mental benefits," said Mark Espeland, Ph.D., lead author.
The study, available on-line in the journal Neuroepidemiology, found that compared to non-drinkers, women who reported drinking up to two or three drinks per day performed better on measure of global cognitive function, which includes concentration, language, memory and abstract reasoning. The women were strongest in verbal skills: those who reported having at least one drink a day did better on vocabulary tests and on a word fluency test asking them to generate a list of words beginning with a specific letter.
Espeland, a professor of public health sciences and chairman of the Department of Biostatistical Sciences, said understanding whether alcohol affects specific areas of cognition may shed light on the mechanisms that make it protective. Possible mechanisms include that alcohol increases levels of "good" cholesterol and lowers the risk of stroke, that it may decrease the formation of plaque that is associated with Alzheimer's disease and that it may increase the release of brain chemicals that affect learning and memory.
He said that until scientists know more, women shouldn't change their drinking patterns. "Until we better understand the reasons why alcohol consumption is associated with better cognitive functioning, these results on their own are not a reason for people who don't drink to start or for those who drink to increase their intake.
Contact: Karen Richardson
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center