Heavy drinking hits men's brains harder than women's, study says
Who has the last laugh? Middle-aged men show significant declines in mental processing speed and memory from heavy alcohol consumption, and more so than women, a new study concludes.
Maybe the average man can get away with drinking more in one sitting than the average woman. But in the long run, that may not be an advantage.
In a paper titled "Alcohol consumption and cognitive decline in early old age," and published online this month in Neurology, researchers used a long-term study of British workers to examine the association between alcohol consumption in midlife and subsequent cognitive decline in both men and women. It seems gender may play a role in the effects of alcohol consumption on the brain.
"Our study based on middle-aged participants suggests that heavy drinking is associated with faster decline in all cognitive domains in men," the paper stated. "In women, there was only weak evidence that heavy drinking was associated with a faster decline in executive function." In fact, not drinking for 10 years was associated with a faster cognitive decline for women, but don't take that as a recommendation to drink heavily. The researchers point out that there are other demographic factors involved, such as race and income.
The researchers drew on the Whitehall II study, established in 1985 by Professor Sir Michael Marmot at University College London, which investigates the importance of social class for health by documenting the behavior of working British men and women. The data for the paper came from 5,054 men and 2,099 women between 44 and 69 years old. Researchers assessed alcohol consumption in the subjects with various cognitive tests over a 10-year period, gauging both memory and executive brain function. The findings proved interesting, especially for women.
The paper concluded that in men, there were no differences in cognitive decline among alcohol abstainers, quitters, and light or moderate alcohol drinkers. However, heavy alcohol consumption -- defined as more than 36 grams per day for men and 19 grams per day for women -- was associated with faster decline in all areas of mental function. That's more than four shots per day for men or more than two per day for women, if you're feeling competitive. (The UK government defines one unit of alcohol as 8 grams.)
While many of us ladies would love to head to happy hour in a vino victory of womankind, the study does warn of its limitations. Because the alcohol consumption was self-reported, the participants may have underestimated the amount of alcohol consumed. And the quality of the self-reported data is worse for those with "lower cognitive scores," which makes sense.
The study also was unable to distinguish daily drinking from binge drinking, since the study did not require data on how many drinks were consumed in a sitting. Finally, female heavy drinkers were more likely to have higher occupational positions than the men in the study, which would be another factor affecting social drinking patterns and long-term health.
"Thus, the interpretation of sex differences in our study is not straightforward and further research is needed to test whether the effect of alcohol on cognition differs by sex," the paper concludes. Any volunteers?