HMS Study Suggests Alcohol Boosts Women’s Health
Evidence links daily alcohol consumption to reduced female cognitive decline
With colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the Harvard researchers found that a small amount of alcohol each day can reduce women’s risk of experiencing cognitive decline in later years.
The scientists compiled data from 11,000 nurses between the ages of 70 and 81 about drinking habits and cognitive ability. The women were divided into three groups based on their daily consumption of alcohol: those who drank one to 14.9 grams of wine, beer or liquor per day, those who drank up to twice that dosage and those who drank none at all. Cognitive tests were conducted on the women in 1999 and 2001. The large sample size ensured that factors such as age, exercise habits, cholesterol levels and high blood pressure would be compensated for in the analysis.
The researchers found that women in the moderate drinking group were 20 percent less likely to show signs of cognitive decline during the two years tests were performed. Nondrinkers and heavier drinkers were not found conclusively to be at greater or less at risk of cognitive decline, and the type of alcoholic drink did not affect the risk factor.
Francine Grodstein, associate professor in the medical school’s Department of Epidemiology and an author of the study, said that the findings demonstrated the health benefits of consuming alcohol, including decreased risk of stroke.
Meir Stampfer, chair of the medical school’s Department of Epidemiology, advises women to act on the results of the study “with caution.”
“Basically, older individuals who are drinking moderately should continue to do so with the knowledge that not only are they not doing themselves any harm, they’re probably also benefiting [their health],” said Stampfer. “For older individuals who don’t drink out of fear of harming their health, they might well reconsider that.”
Stampfer said that cognitive decline was an “enormous problem” for the elderly and that scientists currently know of very few ways to affect its course.
“Any time we can identify a behavioral factor that can reduce that, it’s important,” Stampfer said.
Despite the health benefits of consuming a small quantity of alcohol each day, medical professionals are reluctant to prescribe alcohol as part of individuals’ diets, Grodstein said. She added that some people have an undiscovered predisposition to alcohol that could cause them to drink to excess.
“It is very hard for people to differentiate between a little and a lot” of alcohol, Grodstein said. “When you look at the individual person, everyone reacts to alcohol a little bit differently.”
“It’s much better not to drink at all than to drink too much,” Stampfer said. According to Stampfer, there is evidence that even occasional excess drinking in young people can profoundly affect their cognitive health in later years and there is no evidence that they benefit from moderate drinking either.
He said that further research into the health benefits of alcohol will investigate whether drinking moderately in a short span of time or over the long term matters most in an individual’s life and if the same results occur in men as well as women.