Research on drinking and its impact on health tends to seesaw back and forth, from warning of its dangers to touting its benefits. A recent study from the University of Georgia suggests the latter, showing that light to moderate drinking may help to preserve brain function among middle-aged and older adults.
“We know there are some older people who believe that drinking a little wine everyday could maintain a good cognitive condition,” said lead author Ruiyuan Zhang, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Public Health.
Zhang and his team developed a way to track older adults’ drinking and its relationship to cognitive performance over 10 years, using data from the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study.
During the study, about 20,000 participants completed surveys every two years about their health and lifestyle, including questions about drinking habits. Light to moderate drinking was defined as fewer than eight drinks per week for women and 15 drinks or fewer per week for men.
They also measured participants’ cognitive function in a series of tests looking at their overall mental status, word recall and vocabulary. Their test results were combined to form a total cognitive score which Zhang and his colleagues examined over time, putting them in categories of high- or low-trajectory – meaning their cognitive function either remained high or declined over the study period.
Compared to nondrinkers, they found that light to moderate drinkers were more likely to stay on high cognitive trajectories. This remained the case even when other important factors such as age, smoking or education level were taken into consideration.
The number of drinks per week associated with the best cognitive scores was between 10 and 14. However, older people who drink less than that – or not at all – shouldn’t start indulging more often, Zhang said.