Monday, June 12, 2006

A new study shows moderate drinking by women aged 65 and older may have benefits for the brain.

Don’t skip over that word “may.” The full picture on drinking and thinking is still a bit fuzzy.

The study appears in the early online edition of the journal Neuroepidemiology. Researchers included Mark Espeland, PhD, of the public health sciences department at Wake Forest University’s medical school.

Espeland and colleagues studied data on women aged 65 and older who took part in the Women’s Health Initiative, a study on hormone therapy.

Espeland’s team found that, out of nearly 2,300 participants, those who reported at least one alcoholic drink (beer, wine, or liquor) per day scored higher on tests of verbal skills -- although not other mental skills -- than teetotalers.

Before delving into the details, know this: The researchers aren’t recommending that anyone start drinking or expect mental sharpness from alcohol.

Drinkers, Nondrinkers, Former Drinkers

In the study, the women reported their drinking habits over the previous three months. These self-reports showed:

  • No current alcohol use: 27%
  • Less than one daily drink: 43%
  • One or more daily drinks: 12%
  • Former drinker: 17%

Smoking, hormone use (before or during the study), age, education, and other factors were also noted.

Among women reporting one or more drinks per day, nearly two-thirds said they had only one. Most of the other women in that group (about 29%) reported two or three.

Among the former drinkers, about 18% said they quit drinking due to health problems. Another 11% gave reasons unrelated to health, and the rest didn’t say why they no longer drank.

Test Scores

The women -- who all spoke English and showed no signs of dementia -- were tested for verbal and spatial skills, attention, working memory, motor speed, learning, and depression.

After adjusting for other factors, researchers found that the women who reported having one or more drinks a day tested higher on verbal knowledge and fluency than the nondrinkers.

However, those adjustments for other factors were important, and there’s no way of knowing if they were foolproof.

Drinkers tended to have more education, be white, have higher family income, be current smokers, have lower BMI (body mass index), not be taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, and have no history of diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease.