"Women who had up to two drinks a day scored about 20 percent higher on the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE) than women who didn't drink at all or who consumed less than one drink a week," said Clinton Wright, M.D., M.S., lead author of the study and assistant professor of neurology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University in New York. "The difference remained after adjusting for risk factors such as income, marital status, race or ethnicity and other vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and cardiac disease."
The researchers said they were surprised by the lack of association between carotid plaque and alcohol consumption. Other research had suggested that alcohol consumption might slow the progression of plaque, the fatty material that builds up in arteries and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
"This study suggests that the relationship between alcohol and cognition was not mediated by large vessel atherosclerosis," Wright said. "Future studies with brain imaging are planned to examine the importance of small vessel disease in this relationship."
The fact that the study did not find an association between alcohol consumption and cognition in men might be the result of the sample size since there was "only a small group of men who were never drinkers, so it may not have been possible to detect an effect in men," Wright said.
Study participants were enrolled in the Northern Manhattan Study, an ongoing study of 3,298 stroke-free residents of Northern Manhattan selected by a random digit dialing protocol. This study was conducted in a subsample of 2,215 participants with both alcohol and carotid plaque data available. Their average age was 69.
Contact: Carole Bullock or Karen Astle
American Heart Association