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Are There Cognitive Benefits to Moderate Drinking?

A study among older Americans finds that moderate drinking is linked to cognitive benefits for white participants. Too much is not good!

Researchers have been disputing the benefits and risks of moderate alcohol consumption for decades. Some studies have suggested that several drinks a week might be beneficial for the cardiovascular system. In addition, some have suggested cognitive benefits. Other research has been less supportive of the idea that drinking any alcohol could help the brain.

Moderate Drinking Linked to Cognitive Benefits for White People:

A new study involving almost 20,000 older Americans lasted almost a decade (JAMA Network Open, June 29, 2020). During that time, women who consumed fewer than eight drinks a week and men who consumed than fewer than 15 had less cognitive decline than people who did not drink at all. The volunteers took tests on word recall and vocabulary.

Unfortunately, the cognitive benefits were only observed for white participants. The researchers did not detect an association between moderate alcohol consumption and cognitive health among black volunteers. A study like this cannot demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship. Instead, it may well be that older individuals who drink moderately have other advantages or health behaviors that protect them if they are white.

More Alcohol Is NOT Better: 

In addition, the scientists point out that drinking more results in worse outcomes for brain function. They refer to this as a “U-shaped association,” which is a technical way of saying there is a sweet spot. In this case, they identify “an optimal dose of 10 to 14 drinks per week” for cognitive benefits.

These results are strikingly similar to those found in a study from South Korea just a few months ago. In that research, scientists used MRI and PET to create images of participants’ brains. People who were moderate drinkers throughout their lives had no evidence of the type of degeneration that is specific to Alzheimer disease. In other words, they did not have amyloid plaques visible in their brains. The research did not specify how well they performed on tests of cognitive function.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Zhang R et al, "Association of low to moderate alcohol drinking with cognitive functions from middle to older age among US adults." JAMA Network Open, June 29, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.7922
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