From time to time, researchers send me their latest results when they are controversial. Recently Dr. Michael Collins, of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics of Loyola University's School of Medicine, sent me a copy of a just-published paper of his and colleague Edward Neafsey's from the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, entitled, "Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Cognitive Risk."
Combining the results of all the studies they identified that focused on middle-aged (55 or older) non-alcoholic drinkers, Neafsey and Collins determined that "the average ratio of risk for cognitive risk (dementia or cognitive impairment/decline) associated with moderate 'social' (not alcoholic) drinking of alcohol is 0.77, with nondrinkers as the reference group." This means that middle-aged social drinkers have about three-fourths the risk of developing dementia or cognitive deficits as abstainers.
(Disclosure: The article references a decade-ago review I did of this literature with Archie Brodsky*)
These results are not too surprising, given that the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" earlier this year noted that the evidence for reduced dementia among middle-aged moderate drinkers is fairly good (compared with the strong evidence that such drinkers on average live longer than abstainers).
I know from previous experience that such results produce yelps of outrage, condemnation and scorn, on the following grounds:
- This is the fomenting of a couple of radical nuts. No, it's not. Neasfey and Collins used a statistical method called meta-analysis to combine the results of all the research they could find on the topic, comprising 143 prior studies. And, of course, the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" are an official U.S. government publication.
- The researchers are bought and sold by the alcohol industry. I don't think so. The Dietary Guidelines are produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As a rule of thumb, the American government doesn't like to say good things about alcohol. The head of the Guidelines' alcohol section was a Harvard School of Public Health researcher, Eric Rimm, who for years directed the prestigious Harvard Health Professionals study, which has tracked doctors and nurses for decades. Collins' own original compilation of research in this area was as head of a consortium of researchers in a symposium organized by the Research Society on Alcoholism, a respected group whose name doesn't exactly suggest happy hour.
- They only found moderate drinkers maintain their minds better because moderate drinkers are more prosperous and lead otherwise better lifestyles. This one always surprises me, because accepting it at face value is already a kick in the teeth to the idea of the inherent evil of demon rum. But, leaving that aside, researchers at places like Harvard who do such studies have learned how to control for extraneous factors (other health habits, like diet and smoking, prior drinking problems that caused subjects to abstain, etc.) and the results still shine through.
- Alcohol is so dangerous nothing good should ever be said about it. That's one way to look at it. The other two ways I can think of are: 1) You need to give people -- including young people -- full information on which to base life decisions (especially those that can prolong their lives and cognitive functioning), and 2) hiding such information creates a perception that we are uneasy about something, which actually makes it more likely that people will misuse that thing.
So, abstain if you will or must, but -- if you do so for reasons other than alcoholism -- you are harming your overall health in middle-age.
*Peele S, Brodsky A. Exploring psychological beneﬁts associated with moderate alcohol use: a necessary corrective to assessments of drinking outcomes? Drug Alcohol Depend. 2000;60:221-247.