Don’t become a teetotaler yet

A new study found that men who drink alcohol heavily at mid-life have decreased cognitive function later in life. But don’t give up that glass of wine with dinner just yet. As I’ve said many times before, moderate drinking confers many health benefits–from increases in bone-turnover to reductions in stress and heart disease. It can even protect you against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. I’ll explain more about that in a moment.
But first, let’s figure out what to make of this new study published last month in Neurology

Researchers followed 5,000 men and 2,000 women participating in a long-term health study in the U.K. The men and women were between 44 and 69 years old when they joined the study. At the outset, they took a cognitive function test that measured memory and decision-making abilities such as reasoning, attention, and problem-solving. Over the next 10 years, they took two more similar tests.

Right off the bat, I noticed some gaps in the study’s results. For one, the researchers couldn’t draw any overall conclusion about women. There were no major trends. Even among “heavy” women drinkers. So, this makes me wonder about the study’s conclusion for men.

Is it reliable?

First, all of the men experienced some degree of memory decline over 10 years. And the men who drank less than 20 grams of alcohol per day experienced the same amount of decline as the teetotalers. Researchers called these men “light or moderate drinkers.” This amounts to less than 1.5 drinks per day, according to U.S. standards. (In the U.S., the CDC defines one drink as 14 grams of alcohol. It’s the amount in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or a 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor.)

On the other hand, men who drank more than 36 grams of alcohol per day (more than 2.5 drinks) experienced faster cognitive decline. In fact, their cognition declined between 1.5 and 6 years faster than their counterparts who were not heavy drinkers.

So, the researchers concluded that men who drink more than 2.5 drinks a day might be putting themselves at risk for cognitive decline.

But I look at this a different way. For me, it confirms my old, reliable philosophy… moderation is the key.

If you routinely drink more than 3 or 4 drinks a day, by all means, you should cut back and find a way to achieve moderation. But there’s no reason to abstain entirely. Because moderate alcohol consumption does confer health benefits. Including to your brain!

Dozens of studies show moderate drinking helps protect your brain against cognitive decline. In fact, several very strong studies suggest that light–to-moderate drinking even protects the brain against dementia!

A 1997 population-based study followed 2,300 elderly men and women living in Bordeaux, France. They found that men and women who drank 30 to 40 grams of wine per day significantly lowered their risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. (Remember, in the U.S., this amounts to about two to three drinks per day.)
Plus, a more recent study found no difference in the type of alcohol. Researchers followed almost 8,000 men and women over nearly a decade. And they found light-to-moderate drinkers “significantly” lowered their risk of dementia. The study authors believe alcohol protects against dementia because it opens your blood vessels, which improves circulation to the brain.

Bottom line?

Take that new study with some grains of salt. Of course, it made headlines. And it got a lot of people worried again about their habits. But solid evidence shows major health benefits to drinking a couple glasses of wine in the evening. Or even beer or spirits.


  1. “Alcohol consumption and cognitive decline in early old age,” Neurology, online 15 January 2014
  2. “Wine consumption and dementia in the elderly: a prospective community study in the Bordeaux area,” Rev Neurol 153: 3: 185-192
  3.  “Alcohol consumption and risk of dementia: the Rotterdam study,” Lancet 2002; 359(9303):281-286