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Health Watch: A Drink Might Boost Cognition and Creativity, and Potentially Fight Off the Flu

Two new studies link moderate drinking to positive effects on different brain functions
Photo by: iStock/gilaxia
That glass of wine could take away your mental block.

Lexi Williams, Douglas De Jesus
Posted: August 17, 2017

Anti-aging diets, cosmetics, medical procedures—longevity of life is a priority when it comes to health and wellness research. Now, a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease finds evidence that adults who drink moderately and regularly have a higher chance of not only living longer, but doing so without developing dementia or other cognitive impairment.

"Previous studies have looked at both mortality and cognitive function in relation to alcohol intake, but we really wanted to look at both of those together, because people want to live longer, but they also want to live longer in good cognitive health," said Erin Richard, a graduate student in University of California San Diego-San Diego State University's joint doctoral program and the study's primary author. "We wanted to look at the chances of living to age 85—which was kind of an arbitrary number, but at the same time, that's kind of what we'd all like to do—in good cognitive health."

Richard and fellow researchers looked at data from 1,344 adults who self-reported their alcohol use as part of the Rancho Bernardo Study, an ongoing survey of residents of the San Diego suburb Rancho Bernardo launched in 1972. Beginning in 1988, the participants were tested on their cognitive function in approximate four-year intervals until 2009 using the Mini-Mental State Examination, a questionnaire commonly used to screen for (but not diagnose) dementia.

Here’s what they found: Individuals who drank moderate amounts on a regular basis were more likely to live to age 85 in good cognitive health compared to those who did not drink. (Researchers defined moderate drinking using the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's standards: one drink a day for men age 65 or older and for women of all ages; two drinks per day for men under 65.) Also looking at frequency of consumption, researchers determined that near-daily drinkers had double the odds of living up to age 85 in good cognitive health as opposed to living to the same age with impairment.

That isn't to say that drinking is a direct cause of these positive outcomes, however. First, the study's data was sourced from one community, which happens to be a middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood. As has been noted, moderate alcohol consumption, especially when it comes to wine, is often associated with higher incomes, which are linked to access to better health care and better overall wellbeing.

Additionally, though researchers performed statistical analyses to account for factors such as age, education status, exercise levels and overall health, there are still many lifestyle elements that may contribute to one's cognitive longevity, including stress levels and social interaction—which are also linked with alcohol use.

So it’s possible that alcohol has a physiological impact on brain health, but it could just be that those who drink moderately also practice other lifestyle factors that cause good cognitive health. That, Richard says, is what researchers should look into next.

"We don't want to say that people that don’t drink should start drinking," Richard said. "But among those that are enjoying a glass of wine in moderate amounts throughout the week, according to the guidelines, it might actually be good for their cognitive health."

Bonus: Alcohol May Make You More Creative, Too

We’ve all been there: You have a few glasses of wine and suddenly you want to tell a funny story, engage in a lively conversation or even hop on stage for a round of karaoke. We know that alcohol has the ability to lower inhibitions, but some scientists believe that these pursuits can actually be linked to another side effect of drinking: a spike in creativity.

Recently, researchers from Austria's Institute of Psychology at the University of Graz selected 70 healthy young (and sober) adults to test this idea. In a blind setting, half the participants were given a serving of beer (individually adjusted for weight, age and gender to produce a blood alcohol concentration of 0.03), while the other half were given a serving of non-alcoholic beer.

After drinking, participants were given word-association tasks to assess two different aspects of creative cognition. To test their divergent thinking, they were asked to think of creative uses for common objects, such as car tires and forks. To test creative problem solving, participants were asked to find a connection between seemingly unrelated words. (The study’s text gives an example of “Swiss,” “blue” and “cake,” with the connection being cheese.) The study found that the slight alcohol impairment had no effect on divergent thinking, but it improved creative problem-solving performance.

The researchers believe the results may have to do with a phenomenon called mental fixation, in which one reaches an impasse in creativity. (“Writer’s block” is an example.) The study’s text hypothesizes that by loosening the mind’s focus, mild intoxication may alleviate this fixation. But why would this work for the creative problem-solving task and not for the divergent-thinking task? The researchers claim that cognitive control (aka sobriety) is more important for this line of thinking. They also note that since none of the participants knew whether they were drinking the non-alcoholic beer, they all reported feeling some level of drunkenness, therefore potentially altering their performances on these tests.

Wine Polyphenols Could Fight Flu

According to a paper recently published in Science by Washington University School of Medicine researchers, consuming foods rich in flavonoids (plant metabolites that have antioxidant properties and are derived from herbs, berries, grape skins, wine and tea) may both stave off the onset of the flu and limit its symptoms. Although these results have only been observed in mice so far, they are promising enough that further studies in human subjects will be pursued.

The study found that it's not simply the presence of the flavonoid compounds, but also the microbes in an individual's gastrointestinal system reacting with these flavonoids that is important.

Based on past research, researchers believe that the microbiota in our digestive systems can regulate the body's ability to maintain a healthy equilibrium and react to injury or bacterial infection, by telling the body when to release type 1 interferon, a protein that can influence cells' immune response, effectively turning it on or off.

But interferon can either activate or suppress the body's immune response. "Our studies on the effect of timing shed light on this controversy and imply that interferon priming of the host before infection is protective," said the study's lead researcher, Dr. Ashley Steed, an instructor in pediatrics and critical care medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "However, once the inflammatory process ensues, upregulation of interferon signaling may be detrimental."

After an evaluation of various gut microbes, the researchers focused on Clostridium orbiscindens, which breaks down flavonoids into a metabolite called desaminotyrosine (DAT). They tested three groups of mice—a control group, a group treated with antibiotics and a group given DAT. The mice were treated seven days prior to infection with flu and throughout the following 14 after infection.

The mortality rate of those receiving DAT was almost 50 percent lower than the control group. Surprisingly, the group treated with an antibiotic had the worst mortality rate of all. Also, the DAT group showed far less lung damage. However, when the mice were treated with DAT after being infected with the flu, they developed much worse symptoms and lung damage than those who weren't treated with DAT.

The researchers have yet to recreate these significant findings in human subjects, but the study opens the door to more research. [The study] will inform further investigation into how our diet and intestinal metabolism impact the immune system," said Steed. "Disease from infection, cancer and autoimmunity are intricately linked to the immune responses elicited. Therefore further understanding of this complex interplay will guide our therapies and help us promote health and healing."

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