Observing the Mean

Health is destroyed both by too much and by too little food and drink.


Everybody has heard the rumor: alcohol kills brain cells (just the weak ones, joked a comedian). And if the rumor were true, surely the effect would show up after decades of drinking.

With the same large group of twins that they are using in the Duke Alzheimer's disease study (see article), Joe Christian and his colleagues recently studied the connection between long-term alcohol intake and cognitive functioning in aging men. They divided the twins up into nondrinkers, past drinkers (those who had quit drinking), and five categories of social drinkers, from light to heavy.

It turns out that moderate drinkers (eight to sixteen drinks per week) scored higher on a test of mental acuity than everyone else. What's more, if one of a pair of identical twins was a moderate drinker and the other a light drinker, the moderately drinking twin scored higher. "No evidence was found," writes Christian, "for negative effects on cognitive function related to the consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol."

This is not to downplay the risks of heavy drinking, Christian warned. Subjects in his study who drank more than sixteen drinks per week scored significantly lower than moderate drinkers. What's more, the other physical problems associated with heavy drinking--cirrhosis, high blood pressure, and strokes--are well known.

Still, this study should reassure the millions of moderate drinkers in America that an occasional cold beer will not impair their ability to think as they grow older.

--Mark Buechler

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