It’s annoying, isn’t it, how the news (and not only in the popular press) about how to stay healthy keeps changing? Some years ago, we began to hear reports that consuming alcohol (sometimes it was red wine, sometimes alcohol in general) was associated with living longer, or at least with less or later death from coronary disease and other things. That was a little disconcerting to many nondrinkers (those in recovery and also some of the many Americans who abstain for other reasons), and some even wondered whether it was their medical duty to manage a drink or two a day. (No studies ever suggested that heavy drinking was good for you.)
Of course, all of these findings were correlational, so it always seemed likely that what they were really noticing was that the kinds of people who do some things in moderation may also do many things in moderation, and that moderate lifestyles are good for your health.
Now comes a review from the British Medical Journal tells us that (a) the original claims of better health for moderate drinkers (vs abstainers) are not supported by more refined studies and (b) a new study of non-alcoholic drinkers indicates that even moderate drinking significantly increases the changes of atrophy of the hippocampus (part of the brain involved in memory) as well as “executive function” (frontal lobe cognitive skills required for tasks such as managing time, paying attention, and planning/organizing). We have found that remembering, attending, and organizing are kind of crucial in legal practice.
The study in question was not designed to merely ask people to look back at their years of drinking, but was prospective, that is, 550 individuals were followed and assessed recurrently over a period of 30 years.
The BMJ article points out that the recommended levels of alcohol intake had already been reduced in light of evidence that even light drinking places people at greater risk for certain cancers (including breast cancer). It goes on to say, “Alcohol can be the primary cause of cognitive impairment in some individuals, but it is a likely contributor to cognitive decline in many more.”
The current best guess, according to the article’s author Killian A. Welch of the University of Edinburgh, is that the safest level of alcohol intake is zero to 1 “unit” per day. That means slightly more than half of what we, in the U.S., call a “standard drink” (such as a 12-ounce beer or 5-ounce glass of wine), and seems to translate to no more than 5 standard drinks per week. This is substantially less than the current U.S. guidelines of up to 1 standard drink per day for women and up to 2 standard drinks per day for men.
So to those of you who don’t drink or barely drink: You may be even luckier than you thought.
Jeff Fortgang, PhD