A new study, published in the Feb. 1 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, has found that elderly women who drink in moderation may be keeping their minds sharp.
The latest research follows on the heels of a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health that found that light to moderate amounts of alcohol may help elderly women maintain their cognitive ability and further bolsters the argument that a glass of wine or two per day may prevent brain deterioration.
"In our study, older women who drank moderate amounts of alcohol tended to perform better on tests for cognitive function and dementia," said lead author Mark Espeland, from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Most of these women drank one or two drinks per day." He added that the Harvard study "agrees fairly well with our findings."
According to the Wake Forest study, "evidence is growing that moderate levels of alcohol intake are associated with a reduced risk of dementia." Therefore, the scientists wanted to examine whether similar drinking habits may also yield benefits in terms of overall brain health.
Espeland and his team looked at data from the larger ongoing Women's Health Initiative Memory Study, which began in 1996. That study was originally designed to measure the side effects that hormone therapy may have on the overall brain health of post-menopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79.
The Women's Health Initiative Memory Study recorded any cognitive decline by giving the women yearly in-depth cognition tests to measure abilities such as verbal fluency, special awareness and abstract reasoning. The women also reported on their lifestyle factors, such as income, education level, whether they smoked and how much alcohol they drank, if any, in a typical day.
Since Espeland and his team wanted to focus on light to moderate drinking versus abstaining for their study, they excluded women who drank heavily, which has been linked to higher rates of brain deterioration. Instead, they compared the cognition test results of women in three categories: nondrinkers, those who consumed less than one drink a day (light), and those who had one or two drinks (moderate) a day. (Though not specifically defined in this study, one drink is usually a shot of liquor, 8 ounces to 12 ounces of beer or 4 ounces to 5 ounces of wine.) The women's consumption patterns were not broken down by beverage type.
Compared with nondrinkers, moderate drinkers appeared to have around a 50 percent lower risk of brain deterioration in any measurable form, ranging from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown dementia. Light drinkers showed about a 40 percent lower risk.
However, Espeland noted that the findings could be related to the lifestyles of the light to moderate drinkers; for example, those women tended to be more socially active than nondrinkers. "While evidence is growing that alcohol is beneficial in this area, it is still unclear whether alcohol intake or another defining characteristic is the reason for reduced risk," he said.
"Until we better understand the reasons why alcohol consumption is associated with better cognitive functioning," he added, "these results on their own are not a reason for people who don't drink to start or for those who drink less to increase their intake."