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Light Drinking Associated With Improved Cognitive Health, Study Says

There has been a lot of conflicting evidence about the benefits or drawbacks of having drinks regularly. We know that heavy drinking is not good at all, and for overall health, a major global study found that even a little liquor is bad.

A new study out of the University of Georgia has only clouded the issue after finding that in some people, a little drinking can be good for their brains.

At least anecdotally, you do hear a lot of older people swear by a glass of wine or a bit of whisky every day.

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Every time someone hits one of those milestone ages, someone will ask what their secret to longevity is, and for many, it seems like a drink is involved.

That's exactly what the researchers at the University of Georgia were interested in looking at. "We know there are some older people who believe that drinking a little wine everyday could maintain a good cognitive condition," lead author Ruiyuan Zhang told ScienceDaily.

"We wanted to know if drinking a small amount of alcohol actually correlates with a good cognitive function, or is it just a kind of survivor bias."

And so, the researchers needed to look at a large sampling of data taken over a long period of time.

The team analyzed data from the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study, which surveyed a wide variety of Americans on a number of health issues over decades. Through that survey, the researchers were able to examine cognitive health data from 19,887 participants who were predominantly white and female, with a median age of 62, and who took a cognitive health test every two years between 1996 and 2008. All of the participants also reported their drinking habits.

Comparing those who drank lightly, up to eight drinks a week for women and 15 for men, to those who abstained showed a difference on cognitive tests over time.

Those cognitive tests included things like word recall, vocabulary, and general mental status, and were combined to create an overall cognitive score.

Next to the abstainers, the researchers found that "those who had a drink or two a day tended to perform better on cognitive tests over time." Other factors like aging, smoking, or education level were taken into account, but a clear pattern showed an association between light drinking and better cognitive function.

However, that's not necessarily a reason to uncork a bottle just yet.

"There is now a lot of observational evidence showing that light to moderate alcohol drinking is associated with better cognitive function and a lower risk of dementia compared with alcohol abstaining," Karen Anstey of NHMRC Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration in Australia, who was not involved with the study, told CNN.

But, she cautioned that if you're not already a drinker, other risk factors make taking up alcohol a bad plan. "Alcohol consumption, for example, increases the risk of some cancers," Anstey said. "If one doesn't drink, then we would not recommend taking up alcohol drinking."

And it's unclear whether studies like the University of Georgia's will have any effect on doctors' recommendations.

Dr. Richard Isaacson, a neurologist who founded the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center, told CNN that he hasn't been swayed just yet. "Based on conflicting studies, I don't think at this time we can know for sure whether none versus low to moderate consumption is best in each individual person," he said.

"In my clinical practice, I look at the totality of evidence and then individualize recommendations for the person being cared for," he added. "These decisions should be tailored based on body weight, for example, and also modified based on whether the person has a history of alcohol or substance abuse."

h/t: CNN, ScienceDaily