Further Reading

Does alcohol damage your brains?


Does alcohol damage your brains?

Fred Verweij, Holland

Dear Fred:

It depends how much you drink. A number of studies have found, over people's lives, that moderate alcohol consumers show better cognitive functioning, less dementia (Alzheimer's), more mental acuity, etc. than either abstainers or heavy drinkers. I have published an article (Peele & Brodsky) that reviews this research. I provide a list of these studies below. Note that several of these studies (Hebert et al., and Orgogozo et al.) were controlled, prospective studies — that is, individuals are identified a Point 1, their drinking and cognitive functioning assessed, then their cognitive functioning at Point 2 is measured. Other variables (e.g., smoking and socioeconomic status) are introduced to control for the noted improvement in functioning.

You will ask, "How much drinking optimizes cognitive functioning?" The answer seems to be: "It depends on where you live." For example, Hendrie et al. reported optimal cognitive functioning at fewer than 4 drinks a week, while Orgogozo et al. found the least dementia at 3-4 drinks of wine daily. Correspondingly, three-quarters of the Hendrie et al. elderly urban African American population abstained, compared with only 4 percent of an elderly sample from France in Orgogozo et al. While this may seem highly suspect in terms of epidemiological models of consumption, recently, Italian, German, and French studies have found optimal life span to be most likely for drinkers having up to 8-10 drinks (80-100 gs.) daily (these drinks are about a third smaller than U.S. standard drinks). Rehm and Bondy commented, "Heavier-drinking cohorts tend to display their minimum risk at relatively higher levels of alcohol intake" for which they found "no satisfactory explanation" (p. 223).

When the U.S. Dietary Guidelines can report information such as this, we will be living in a non-Temperance country, like the Netherlands.


Carmelli, D., et al., 1999. The effect of apolipoprotein E e4 in the relationships of smoking and drinking to cognitive function. Neuroepidemiol. 18, 125-133.

Christian, J. C., et al., 1995. Self-reported alcohol intake and cognition in aging twins. J. Stud. Alcohol 56, 414-416.

Dufouil, C., et al., 1997. Sex differences in the association between alcohol consumption and cognitive performance. Am. J. Epidemiol. 146, 405-412.

Elias, P. K., et al., 1999. Alcohol consumption and cognitive performance in the Framingham Heart Study. Am. J. Epidemiol. 150, 580-589.

Hebert, L. E., et al., 1993. Relation of smoking and low-to-moderate alcohol consumption to change in cognitive function: A longitudinal study in a defined community of older persons. Am. J. Epidemiol. 137, 881-891.

Hendrie, H. C., et al., 1996. The relationship between alcohol consumption, cognitive performance, and daily functioning in an urban sample of older Black Americans. J. Am. Geriatr. Soc. 44, 1158-1165.

Launer, L. J., et al., 1996. Smoking, drinking, and thinking: The Zutphen elderly study. Am. J. Epidemiol. 143, 219-227.

Orgogozo, J-M., et al., 1997. Wine consumption and dementia in the elderly: A prospective community study in the Bordeaux area. Revue Neurologique 153, 185-192.

Peele, S., Brodsky, A., 2000. Exploring psychological benefits associated with moderate alcohol use: A necessary corrective to assessments of drinking outcomes? Drug Alcohol Depend. 60, 221-247.

Rehm, J., Bondy, S., 1998. Alcohol and all-cause mortality: An overview. The French paradox and wine drinking. In: Chadwick, D. J., Goode, J. A. (Eds.), Alcohol and Cardiovascular Diseases. Wiley, Chichester, UK, pp. 223-236.