Are drinkers smarter?

Research in London links alcohol consumption, cognitive ability

Aug 17, 2004 - Researchers based at University College London have found that drinking alcohol, even in low amounts, might be associated with higher cognitive ability, particularly for women.


The report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who consume anywhere from one drink a week up to 30 drinks a week performed better than nondrinkers on a battery of different tests designed to measure their intellectual ability. "Compared with abstainers, persons drinking one or two glasses of alcohol per day had a significantly lower risk of poor cognitive function," the authors wrote.

Subjects who drank alcohol occasionally, but who did not drink in the week prior to the tests, also performed better than nondrinkers, but they did not do as well as the people who drank regularly. "In terms of cognitive function, we found that frequent drinking may be more beneficial than drinking only on special occasions," the authors wrote.

It was not clear if the benefits were due to the alcohol itself, or if other factors may have had an impact on the volunteers' mental skills. The researchers noted that drinkers tended to earn more and have higher levels of education than nondrinkers. "Moderate consumption could be a proxy marker for good mental and physical health and for high socioeconomic position, both of which are related to good cognitive performance," the authors wrote. They added, "Alternatively, alcohol may have a causal effect via improved vascular function, which is itself associated with good cognitive ability in the general population."

Prior studies that examined whether alcohol consumption affects cerebral skills have yielded inconsistent results or dealt with elderly populations, according to the team, which was led by Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the college.

In most of the tests, women performed better than their male counterparts in the same consumption categories; for instance, in the "inductive reasoning" test, women performed 10% to 30% better than men. The scientists think that this could be due to women choosing different types of alcohol than men do. Or they speculated that women might metabolize alcohol in a gender-specific way, based on differing stomach enzymes or body fat-to-water ratio, which may lead to a possible cognitive improvement.

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