Drinking can help thinking, study says

WASHINGTON – Women who imbibe a little wine, beer or spirits every day are less likely than teetotalers to see their memories and other thinking powers fade as they age, according to the largest study to assess alcohol’s effect on the brain.

The study of more than 12,000 elderly women found that those who consumed light to moderate amounts of alcohol daily had about a 20 percent lower risk of experiencing problems with their mental abilities later in life.

“Low levels of alcohol appear to have cognitive benefits,” said Francine Grodstein of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, senior author on the study, which is being published in today’s New England Journal of Medicine. “Women who consistently were drinking about one-half to one drink per day had both less cognitive impairment as well as less decline in their cognitive function compared to women who didn’t drink at all.”

While the study involved only women, the findings probably hold true for men, although previous research indicates that men seem to benefit from drinking slightly more – one to two drinks per day, researchers said.

The findings provide the latest evidence that indulging in alcohol, long vilified as part of an insalubrious lifestyle, can actually help people live longer, healthier lives.

While heavy drinking clearly causes serious problems for many people, recent research has found that drinking in moderation protects the heart. A few small studies have similarly suggested that alcohol may help the brain. The new study is by far the largest and most detailed to examine that question.

Alcohol appears to protect the brain in the same way that it guards the heart: by improving blood flow. It may also reduce the risk of small “silent” strokes, which can cause subtle brain damage that erodes mental powers.

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