Alcohol is good for more than making memories—it’s also good for keeping them. (Photo by John Rowley/Digital Vision/Getty Images)
Good news for cocktail lovers: Despite alcohol’s reputation as a brain-cell assassin, new research suggests that drinking daily in moderation after age 60 may actually help preserve your memory.
In the study, published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, the researchers tracked the alcohol intake of 664 people, assessed their cognitive functioning with a handful of tests, and performed scans of their brains. During the first phase of the study, participants’ average age was 42; by the end of the study, it was 75.
What they found: Imbibing later in life — as long as it was at a light to moderate level — was associated with better episodic memory, or the ability to remember specific events, compared to abstaining. This is a significant finding, since episodic memory is the type of recall that usually disappears with dementia. “Over time, you don’t necessarily lose memory for [how to do] things, like driving or having coffee,” said study author Faika Zanjani, an associate professor of behavioral and community health at the University of Maryland. “You usually lose memory of events — memories that you have to retrieve, instead of just use. It’s not just forgetting your keys. It’s forgetting key moments in your life.”
The scientists credit alcohol’s ability to preserve the hippocampus, an area of the brain that Zanjani calls “the memory muscle.” Past research has shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease show shrinkage in this brain region. In the study, MRI’s revealed that the moderate drinkers had greater hippocampal volume than abstainers — further evidence that alcohol does, in fact, shield this part of the brain.
Although wine tends to be the favored alcoholic beverage among older folks, past research has shown no difference in the mental benefits of beer, wine, or liquor, noted Zanjani. But keep in mind: Although a daily glass of booze may boost your brain, a daily six-pack will not. “All of these improvements actually reverse when people drink more than three drinks per day,” cautioned Zanjani. Over-imbibing may actually accelerate mental decline over time, she said.
And even though moderate alcohol intake — that is, two or three drinks per day — was linked to improved memory, Zanjani is not ready to recommend exceeding the standard one-drink-a-day advice. “We constantly recommend that people not consume more than one drink a day,” she told Yahoo Health. “So when we actually find benefits for the moderate level, we’re pretty surprised.” In fact, downing more than one a day is generally considered “a little bit dangerous” from a disease perspective, Zanjani said.
But this study suggests that the key may simply be to avoid abusing alcohol — at least when it comes to preserving your memory. “As long as you don’t get intoxicated and stop doing the things you need to do, drinking alcohol seems to be OK,” she said.
So should all of us start sipping, stat? Not necessarily. In the study, midlife alcohol intake didn’t affect memory or brain volume later on in life. “We were actually very surprised,” said Zanjani. “This basically says that alcohol has short-term effects at the moderate level.” Translation: In order to enjoy the memory benefits of booze, you may not need to start imbibing until after age 60 — unless, of course, you just enjoy a nightly glass of wine.