Typically, alcohol is viewed as something that decreases cognitive performance.
After all, people do tend to make bad decisions when they have had a bit too much to drink.
But, what is the actual connection between alcohol and cognitive function?
For that matter, what happens with moderate levels of alcohol consumption?
A 2010 paper attempted to answer this question using a population-based study.
Their results were quite interesting.
Background to the Study
The research paper used data from the Tromsø study, which was a longitudinal study conducted in Tromsø, Norway.
A longitudinal study is a fairly common observational study type.
It involves the collection of data from the same participants over a period of time. Often this type of study can collect information for years or decades. The site Survey Gizmo offers additional information about this overall style and its implications.
The study approach allows researchers to see how outcomes change over time.
It is also a powerful way to look at long-term health issues and outcomes.
For example, a longitudinal study could let authors see the association between levels of alcohol consumption and risk of death, or between wine consumption and the development of dementia.
The design can’t test cause and effect, but the length and size of the study does allow the authors to see patterns that they simply couldn’t otherwise.
After all, it wouldn’t be practical to use an experimental design to test the relationship between alcohol consumption and Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, this type of study tends to be less expensive than trying to conduct an experimental study with a large number of people.
Those factors are key reasons why observational and longitudinal studies are so common despite the fact that they can’t test cause and effect.
The Study Itself
The study focused on the impact of alcohol consumption on cognitive test results.
Data was used from 5,033 stroke-free participants of the Tromsø Study.
The authors looked at a range of factors at baseline, including heart disease risk factors and alcohol consumption.
Cognitive function of the participants was measured 7 years after the beginning of the Tromsø study.
The authors found that there was no consistent association between cognitive test results and the consumption of beer or spirits.
Consumption of a moderate amount of beer was associated with improved cognitive performance in some of the cognitive tests, but the outcomes were inconsistent.
However, the moderate consumption of wine was associated with higher performance in cognitive tests.
Interestingly, the authors also found that women who did not drink alcohol had lower cognitive test outcomes.
The authors also noted that other studies have also indicated that moderate alcohol consumption can improve cognitive performance.
They also identified one possible mechanism behind the observed effect, which was the potential of the flavonoids in wine to act as antioxidants and thus decrease oxidative stress.
Strengths and Limitations
The experimental design of this study is both a strength and a limitation.
It’s a limitation in that the design cannot test cause and effect.
This means that we don’t know whether the wine consumption actually improved cognitive performance or whether the two factors were related for some other reason.
But, the design also allowed for data to be gathered from a large number of participants, so this was an advantage.
Another issue with the study was the amount of information available.
In particular, cognitive performance was only tested at the 7-year follow-up, not at the start of the study when all the rest of the information was gathered.
Additionally, only limited information was available about the socioeconomic status of participants.
This lack of information has the potential to seriously influence the outcomes of the study.
For example, both wine drinking behavior and cognitive performance could be affected by socioeconomic status.
After all, people of a higher socioeconomic status often have more education and may have an increased ability to critically think. Likewise, they may live in an environment that is less stressful than people of low socioeconomic status face.
These factors could contribute to a higher level of cognitive performance.
In essence, this means that the people more likely to drink a moderate amount of wine are also more likely to have higher cognitive function.
The outcomes of the study offer no way to determine whether the wine was the cause of the improved cognitive performance or not.
The authors did also note that they didn’t have data to know whether people were binge drinking or not.
This is also significant because the cognitive outcomes for people who binge drink are likely to be quite different than those who do not.
A final limitation is that the study focused on a single cohort of participants.
Because of this, the observed outcomes may not be true for other groups who have different patterns of drinking.
For example, younger people often tend to have different drinking habits than people in their 40s.
Those differences in habits could have significant impacts on the way that alcohol impacts cognitive performance.
Implications of the Study
The outcomes of this study do suggests that low to moderate consumption of wine helps to improve cognitive performance, although more research is certainly needed.
The study did also indicate that the other types of alcohol tested didn’t have any negative effects on cognitive performance.
This suggests that having a moderate amount of alcohol doesn’t cause significant cognitive harm and may even be beneficial. Other sources also agree with this concept, including the site Be Brain Fit. Nevertheless, you do still need to make wise decisions about what you drink and when.
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Have you found this pattern in your own life? Does wine make you think better? Or, do you think this idea is just an artifact of the research method?