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Drink a Day May Keep Older Women Sharp By NICHOLAS BAKALAR
Published: February 1, 2005
Not only red wine but also white wine, beer and hard liquor appear to protect against mental decline in older women, two new studies have found.
The studies are the latest to find a benefit from moderate drinking. In one, researchers at Harvard University and Brigham and Women's Hospital followed alcohol consumption among more than 11,000 women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study, one of the largest investigations into the risk factors for major chronic illnesses in women.
The researchers identified women in the study who were 70 or older and assessed their mental status using various tests of memory, verbal fluency and general mental skills over a six-year period starting in 1995.
Women who consumed about a drink a day (up to 15 grams of alcohol, or about half an ounce), the researchers found, had significantly better test results - so much so that in their mental performance, they scored about a year and a half younger than the nondrinkers and those who drank 15 to 30 grams a day.
The study appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
A second paper, published in the Feb. 1 issue of The American Journal of Epidemiology, reported similar results in a group of 4,461 women.
The study, by Dr. Mark Espeland and his colleagues at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., used different tests of mental abilities and found that women who had one drink a day scored higher than those who did not drink at all.
The reason that alcohol seems to have this beneficial effect is not entirely clear, but it is probably connected to the significantly lower rates of cardiovascular disease among moderate drinkers, a phenomenon that has been known for some time.
Alcohol appears to raise levels of H.D.L. cholesterol, the so-called "good cholesterol," and to lower levels of blood clotting agents like fibrinogen.
This may help prevent not only heart attacks, but also the small, subclinical strokes that cause vascular damage in the brain and lead to mental deterioration.
The findings have important implications for women's health, said Dr. Meir J. Stampfer, the lead author on the Harvard study. "Even low levels of alcohol consumption, as little as a half a drink a day, appear to be beneficial," Dr. Stampfer said in a telephone interview.
As for women who do not drink, Dr. Stampfer said that a cocktail or a glass of wine or beer with dinner is not a bad idea.
But, he cautioned, "Everyone is aware of the need to avoid recommending alcohol in a way that might lead to abuse."
An editorial that accompanied the Harvard paper warned about the danger of becoming overenthusiastic about alcohol's benefits. The study, it pointed out, had great strengths in its large size and rigorous methodology, but it may not have measured mental functioning at enough points in time to achieve absolute certainty about the changes in mental capacity.
Dr. Espeland also urged caution.
"More focused and controlled studies should be done," he said, before nondrinkers are encouraged to start drinking. Dr. Stampfer has another concern: moderate drinking may slightly increase the risk of breast cancer.
Still, he said, several studies suggest that this risk can be avoided by including enough folate in the diet - about 400 micrograms a day, or the amount in a typical multivitamin.
While most doctors have held that suggesting alcohol as part of a healthy diet is too dangerous, Dr. Stampfer thinks this approach should be re-evaluated. "The evidence for its health benefits, both for cognitive function and heart disease prevention, is too strong to ignore," he said.