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.

Moderate Drinking OK for Most People

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 percent

--Less than one daily drink: 43 percent

--One or more daily drinks: 12 percent

--Former drinker: 17 percent

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 percent) reported two or three.

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

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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.

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Second Check

Espeland’s team didn’t stop there. They did another analysis that added more than 4,900 Women’s Health Initiative participants to the 2,300 or so women they had already studied.

Once again, women reporting more than one drink a day scored better – but not by much – on tests than teetotalers.The differences didn’t seem to be due to chance but they were “small” -- about 1 unit on a 100-unit scale, Espeland and colleagues write.

The tests were done only once. So it’s not known whether the women’s test scores would have changed over time. And the surveys only checked the women’s drinking habits over the previous three months, not their entire lives.

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True Benefit?

Furthermore, the study doesn’t prove alcohol should get the credit for the drinkers’ higher test scores.

The researchers write they “cannot dismiss the possibility that the observed relations are spurious.” In other words, they’re not sure one thing is really tied to the other.

They add they weren’t able to weigh all the health and social impacts of starting to drink or of drinking alcohol in moderate amounts. For example, alcohol use has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.

“We therefore do not see, in our data or related reports, sufficient strength of evidence to recommend that women consider regular, moderate alcohol consumption as a means to promote cognitive health,” write Espeland and colleagues.

“It may be that a clinical trial is necessary to assess whether there truly is a beneficial effect, and the risks of moderate alcohol intake,” write the researchers.

Espeland’s data was observational. Clinical trials are different. In a clinical trial of alcohol, women might be asked to change their drinking habits for the trial’s sake. That wasn’t done in the Women’s Health Initiative.

Don’t be a Risky Drinker

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Espeland, M. Neuroepidemiology, early online edition. News release, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.