Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may help women stay mentally sharp as they age.

“Our data suggest that in women, up to one drink per day does not impair cognitive function and may actually decrease the risk of cognitive decline,” say the researchers, who included Meir Stampfer, MD, of Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The finding appears in The New England Journal of Medicine’s Jan. 20 edition. It’s based on the Nurses’ Health Study, which has followed 120,000 female nurses for almost 30 years.

Stampfer and colleagues focused on more than 12,400 Nurses’ Health Study participants. The women were 70 to 81 years old. The researchers collected information about the women's alcohol intake as part of a food questionnaire every two to four years, starting in 1980. They asked the women how often on average they drank beer, wine, or liquor during the previous year.

Just over half were nondrinkers (51 percent). For those who drank alcohol, most were moderate drinkers, defined as having about one drink per day. Only 5 percent of the women reported drinking one to two drinks daily.

Drinking and Thinking

The women’s thinking was quizzed via telephone. In one test, they named as many animals as possible in a minute. They also reversed an increasingly long series of numbers and recalled details from text read to them. Two years later, the tests were repeated.

The study shows that older women who consumed up to one drink per day performed better than nondrinkers. They also maintained more of their mental sharpness, and had a smaller risk of a decline in mental skills seen during the period when the two tests were performed.

Drinking more than one drink daily didn’t help. “There were no significant associations between higher levels of drinking and the risk of cognitive impairment or decline,” say the researchers.

The type of alcohol consumed also didn’t matter.

‘Double-Edged Sword’

The study adds to the possible health benefits of light to moderate alcohol consumption. For instance, past research has shown that drinking modest amounts of alcohol — up to two daily drinks for men and one for women — could help protect against heart disease.

But alcohol’s health record is mixed. There are obvious problems — such as addiction, drunk driving, and poor judgment — that come from overdoing it. Breast cancer risk may also rise when women drink alcohol, other studies have shown.

So, what’s a woman to do — raise a toast or be a teetotaler?

“Alcohol consumption can be a double-edged sword,” say Denis Evans, MD, and Julia Bienias, ScD, in an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine. They suggest that future studies should test mental skills over the years to learn how alcohol consumption affects the aging brain.

Serving Sizes

Meanwhile, drinkers may want to monitor serving size. The study asked women about consuming 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or a standard serving of liquor.

Glasses may hold much more than that. For instance, some wine glasses hold up to 19 ounces of wine, which could make it easy to get more than you bargain for.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Stampfer, M. The New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 20, 2005; vol 352: pp 245-253. Evans, D. The New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 20, 2005; vol 352: p 289. WebMD Medical News: “Alcohol May Increase Breast Cancer Risk.”