- A good amount of evidence suggests that people who drink moderately are healthier in some ways — even though too much alcohol is bad for you.
- A recent study shows that regular and even heavy drinkers are less likely to suffer age-related cognitive decline.
- The researchers think drinking might be connected to those health effects.
If you regularly enjoy a beer or glass of wine — or two — at the end of the day, there’s a new reason to feel alright about that habit.
A new study has found that regular drinkers who consume moderate and even technically “heavy” quantities of alcohol (without overdoing it) are more likely to reach age 85 with their cognitive abilities intact.
The research, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease on July 29, looked at 1,344 adults in California. The results showed that people who drank five to seven days a week at moderate or heavy levels — up to three drinks a day for people over 65 — were two to three times more likely than comparable non-drinkers to reach 85 without showing signs of cognitive decline. Those results also held true for men under age 65 who drank up to four alcoholic drinks a day.
We should note that the researchers behind this study don’t want to encourage people to start drinking more. Alcohol use is a factor in approximately 88,000 deaths every year in the US, and drinking alcohol is associated with an increased risk of developing certain cancers.
But it doesn’t seem that all drinking is necessarily bad. Moderate drinking is associated with lower risks for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and this new study backs up an already significant body of research showing that people who drink regularly may be less likely to suffer age-related cognitive decline.
Drinking, ageing, and the brain
For the new study, researchers used data from the Rancho Bernardo Study, which has tracked the health and behaviour of residents of the San Diego suburb since 1972.
Of the initial 6,339 people studied, researchers looked at over 1,300 people who turned 85 before 2009 and who had their cognitive abilities tested at some point between 1988 and 1992. The participants had been tested regularly since then, and had also answered questions between 1984 and 1987 about their alcohol drinking habits.
There were more drinkers in this group of people than there are in the general population — 88% compared to 46%. A full 48% of participants drank “nearly-daily;” 49% drank moderately (up to two drinks a day for men under 65, and up to one drink a day for all women and for men older than 65); and 36% drank heavily.
Compared to non-drinkers, the people who drank heavily were the most unlikely to show signs of cognitive decline before age 85.
So what’s happening?
We don’t know that drinking is what kept participants’ brains healthy, tempting as it might be to raise a glass to memory function.
There are a number of confounding factors. It’s possible that non-drinkers stopped drinking because they were having health problems, which could have skewed cognitive testing results. However, researchers also tried their analysis exclusively on participants who reported being healthier than average, and results remained the same.
The Rancho Bernardo group is also mostly white and middle-class with at least some college education, which could have an effect — we don’t know how these results compare to other demographic groups. It’s even possible that because drinking was so common in this community, people who drank regularly were more socially engaged, which could have aided their cognitive health. Heavy drinkers in this group were also most likely to exercise.
But this isn’t the only study to find this sort of association. A meta-analysis of 74 studies found that moderate drinkers have lower risk of cognitive decline than non-drinkers. That analysis found that excessive drinkers — who drank more than the heavy drinkers in the recent study — had a higher risk of cognitive decline. (There weren’t enough excessive drinkers in the most recent study to determine how they fared.)
One study in Norway did find contradictory results, however — participants who drank more had increased dementia risk. However, the researchers behind the Rancho Bernardo analysis pointed out that in the Norwegian group, people who had five or more drinks every two weeks made up only 6.5% of the population. And that study focused on quantity of alcohol imbibed without taking frequency into account.
Most recent studies on alcohol consumption have found that drinking moderately and frequently is associated with more benefits than drinking an equivalent weekly quantity in just one or two sessions.
While the researchers do not recommend that non-drinkers pick up a glass because of their findings, they wrote that these results could be encouraging for people who already drink at healthy levels.
“[A]mong those who choose to consume alcohol, regular, moderate drinking may play a role in promoting cognitively healthy longevity,” they said.