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Could Alcohol Consumption Contribute to Cognitive Health?

A new University of Georgia study, linking alcohol consumption and changes in cognitive function over time among middle-aged and older American adults, indicates that light to moderate drinking may indeed contribute to cognitive maintenance. “We know there are some older people who believe that drinking a little wine every day 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.”

Previous studies have shown that regular moderate alcohol consumption promotes heart health and some research points to a similar protective benefit for brain health. However, many of those studies were not designed to isolate the effects of alcohol on cognition or did not measure and examine those effects over time. But Zhang and his team developed a method to track cognition performance over 10 years using participant data from the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study.

During the analysis, a total of 19,887 participants completed surveys every two years about their health and lifestyles. The surveys included questions about drinking habits. For the study, light to moderate drinking was defined as fewer than eight drinks per week for women and 15 drinks or fewer per week for men. Participants had their cognitive function measured in a series of tests examining their overall mental status, word recall and vocabulary. Their test results were combined to form a total cognitive score.

Zhang and his colleagues examined how participants performed on the cognitive tests over the course of the study and categorized their performances as high or low trajectories, describing cognitive function as remaining high over time or declining over the period. Researchers found that compared with nondrinkers, those who consumed a drink or two per day tended to perform better on cognitive tests over time. Even when controls accounted for other important factors known to affect cognition, such as age, smoking or education level, researchers found a pattern of light drinking to be associated with high cognitive trajectories.

Findings suggested the optimal number of drinks per week to be between 10 and 14. However, that doesn’t suggest that those who drink less should begin to increase their alcoholic intake, Zhang said. “It is hard to say this effect is causal,” he said. “So if some people don’t drink alcoholic beverages, this study does not encourage them to drink to prevent cognitive function decline.”

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