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Moderate consumption of alcohol can lead to better mental status, word recall and vocabulary, study shows

Researchers also linked light to moderate drinking to slower decline in brain functions and lower risk of developing heart disease
UPDATED JUN 30, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Consuming alcohol in moderation might make you sharper, a new study found. Middle-aged or older American adults who boozed at low to moderate levels seem to have better functioning brains, but reports suggest that these findings do not apply to African-Americans. Researchers from the US and China followed close to 20,000 Americans – most of whom were women and white – from 1996 through 2008. People consuming low to moderate alcohol scored better in tests assessing mental status, word recall, and vocabulary than those who did not drink, suggesting that moderate alcohol consumption can lead to better functionality in these areas. What is more, they also showed a slower decline in brain functions, compared to their non-drinker counterparts.  The researchers, however, are unsure of how booze acts on the brain.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption equals 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. A standard drink should contain 14.0 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in 12 ounces of beer or 8 ounces of malt liquor or 5 ounces of wine. 

Research on alcohol intake is highly contentious. One study found that regardless of the dose, alcohol use was the seventh leading risk factor for early deaths and disabilities in people aged between 15 and 49 years across 195 countries. On the other hand, few studies have linked light to moderate drinking to some health benefits such as a lower risk of developing heart disease, reduced symptoms of type 2 diabetes, and the like.

Moderate alcohol consumption equals 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.(Getty Images)

"What we know for sure is that drinking too much alcohol definitely harms the brain in a major way. What is less clear is whether or not low to moderate intake may be protective in certain people, or if total abstinence is the most sound advice," neurologist Dr. Richard Isaacson, founder of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center, told CNN. He was not involved in the study.

"Based on conflicting studies, I don't think at this time we can know for sure whether none versus low to moderate consumption is best in each individual person," he added. 

What does the new study say?

For over nine years, researches wanted to study whether light to moderate alcohol intake improved or lowered brain functioning. So they recruited 19, 887 participants and tested their cognitive functions three times during that period. The mean age of the people in the study stood at 61.8 years.

The tests showed that people who never drank scored low compared to those who consumed alcohol in the prescribed limits. Both men and women showed similar results. The researchers, however, saw differences among races.

 "Few studies have evaluated whether the effects are similar in different racial or ethnic groups. This [finding] raises the possibility that ethnic groups vary in their vulnerability to the cognitive effects of alcohol," Kaarin Anstey, a director of the NHMRC Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration in Australia, who was not involved in the study, told CNN.

But other factors such as socioeconomic status and culture could also be involved. "It is very difficult to disentangle the biological from social mechanisms at play here," she added.

The study suffers from a few limitations. The researchers relied on reports from participants, who might not accurately remember details of their drinking patterns. They also acknowledged that other factors could also influence brain functions.

The study has been published in JAMA.