Drinking is good for you again! And just as the nights draw in. What a relief.
We report that drinking wine can improve memory. Of course, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that; knocking back the pinot noir is unlikely to help you win Mastermind. It only applies in the over-60s, drinking between one and six alcoholic drinks a week. A study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias and carried out at the universities of Texas, Kentucky and Maryland surveyed 660 older people on their alcohol consumption, and performed a battery of neurological tests and scans and so on, and came to the conclusion that for older people who don’t suffer from dementia, light alcohol drinking “is associated with” better episodic memory – the ability to remember events, and moderate drinking is associated with a larger hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory.
The report stops short of saying that drink causes this improvement, although findings from earlier animal studies “suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may contribute to preserved hippocampal volume by promoting generation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus” and “exposing the brain to moderate amounts of alcohol may increase the release of brain chemicals involved with cognitive, or information processing, functions”. So there is a plausible-sounding mechanism. There are lots of caveats – it’s a small-ish study; it hasn’t been followed up; studies involving self-reporting of lifestyle factors are always dodgy, because they rely on fallible memory. But as far as I can work out, it is not completely ridiculous to suggest that in this very specific way, alcohol could have a protective effect on memory in older people, although I’d wait for another study to repeat the results before I actually believed it.
What it doesn’t mean, of course, is that drinking is now good for us. We are fairly often told that alcohol performs some protective function on one organ or another – usually that red wine is good for the heart. And again, they’re not complete nonsense: there is some slight indication that moderate drinking (within the Government’s depressingly low limits of 3-4 units of alcohol a day for men or 2-3 for women) might reduce the risk of coronory heart disease, although less so for women than for men. But it is a very small effect, dwarfed by other possible interventions such as taking regular exercise or stopping smoking. And importantly, it’s only one aspect of alcohol’s health impact. For instance, the charity DrinkAware quotes Dr Jonathan Chick, editor-in-chief of the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, saying that increasing risks of “illnesses such as breast cancer begin to show at surprisingly low levels of drinking in women”. And higher levels of consumption, above the recommended guidelines, are uncomplicatedly bad for you.
Even in the specific case of memory, alcohol is usually associated with poor outcomes. Earlier this year, another study suggested that one or two drinks a day in early and middle life was associated with memory loss when you’re older. Heavy drinking, of course, can cause the awful Wernicke-Korssakoff’s syndrome, which a sometimes fatal swelling of the brain followed by early-onset dementia, sometimes with profound memory loss.
None of this is to suggest that you shouldn’t drink – drinking alcohol can be fun, which is why we do it. But the discovery that it may be slightly good for your memory in some specific circumstances is not a good reason to drink; nor is the idea that it’s good for your heart, or anything else. If you want to drink, drink because you enjoy it; if you’re coming up with justifications about how good it is for you, you’re kidding yourself.