Source: Sunday Telegraph
Date: 1 August 2004

Alcohol sharpens your brain, say researchers

a  smart drink?

By Robert Matthews,
Science Correspondent

It is news guaranteed to raise a cheer among those who enjoy a glass or two: drinking half a bottle of wine a day can make your brain work better, especially if you are a woman.

Research to be published tomorrow by academics at University College London has found that those who even drink only one glass of wine a week have significantly sharper thought processes than teetotallers.

The benefits of alcohol, which are thought to be linked to its effect on the flow of blood to the brain, can be detected when a person drinks up to 30 units of alcohol - about four to five bottles of wine - per week.

The researchers were unable to test the effect of higher levels of alcohol consumption, although drunkenness probably negates any positive effects on the brain.

The findings have surprised health officials, who issued yet another warning last week about the dangers of overdrinking.

According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics, one in six women now drinks more than the Government's recommended limit of 14 units of alcohol a week - an increase of 70 per cent since the late 1980s. The recommended maximum weekly intake for men is 21 units.

The latest findings on the benefits of alcohol are drawn from a study of the long-term health of 10,000 British civil servants. Known as the Whitehall Study, it was originally set up in 1967 to identify links between health and factors ranging from smoking and obesity to age and social status.

In the latest research, a team led by Sir Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, gave psychometric tests to more than 6,000 civil servants.

The questions ranged from verbal and mathematical reasoning problems to tests of short-term memory. The civil servants' performance was then matched against their drinking habits.

The study took into account all alcohol consumption and was not specific to wine. However, the results showed that those having even a single glass of wine a week scored significantly higher in the tests than more abstemious drinkers. Teetotallers were twice as likely as occasional drinkers to achieve the lowest scores.

The benefits were most marked among women drinkers and, to the researchers' surprise, showed no sign of flattening out with increasing consumption.

Those who downed the equivalent of half a bottle of wine or two pints of beer a day scored best of all. The effects were apparent even after the results had been adjusted to take into account factors such as physical and mental health.

"Our results appear to suggest some specificity in the association between alcohol consumption and cognitive ability," said the team. "Frequent drinking may be more beneficial than drinking only on special occasions."

The team, whose findings are being reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, suggests that the results may reflect the fact that alcohol can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and increase blood flow to the brain - factors linked to improved mental function.

The researchers also speculate that women might benefit more because of the different way in which they metabolise alcohol. However, they acknowledge that the benefits of alcohol can be outweighed by the increased risks of getting diseases such as cancer and cirrhosis, and that the findings should not be used as an excuse for heavier drinking.

Dr Guy Ratcliffe, the medical director of the Medical Council on Alcohol, said that the study would add to earlier evidence that moderate drinking could be beneficial - offering advantages such as a reduced risk of heart disease and strokes.

"This is a well-researched study, and it's important that information such as this is available so that people can make informed decisions about alcohol consumption," he said.

Kate Winstanley, the policy director of the Portman Group, set up by the industry to promote responsible drinking, welcomed the findings.

"There is a lot of concern about trends in women's drinking, especially young women, but the concern is chiefly about women who drink to get drunk. This study does seem to support the view that moderate drinking is better than none at all," she said.

The University College team is now hoping to continue the study to investigate whether alcohol can help slow the decline of mental function as people grow older. A recent American study suggested that drinkers suffered significantly less cognitive decline with age than teetotallers, with women again showing the greatest benefit.

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