The question

Popular belief, backed up by various studies, holds that a moderate amount of alcohol can be good for your heart. Might it have a similar effect on your brain?

This study

The study tracked 550 adults for 30 years, starting when they were, on average, 43 years old, periodically assessing their alcohol consumption and cognitive performance. None of the participants had an alcohol dependency. Standardized testing showed that people who drank the most during the three decades had a faster and greater decline in cognitive functioning than those who consumed less alcohol. Brain MRIs at the end of the study revealed greater hippocampal atrophy, a loss of cells in the region of the brain that is key to memory and learning, among heavier drinkers compared with lighter drinkers. But even moderate drinkers were three times as likely to have brain atrophy as non-drinkers. The researchers found no brain-related benefits for alcohol consumption at any level, including very light drinking, compared with abstinence.

Who may be affected?

Adults who consume alcohol. Current U.S. guidelines describe moderate drinking as one drink a day for women, and two for men. Examples of standard alcoholic drinks include a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine and a 1.5-ounce drink of 80-proof liquor. The study authors wrote that their findings “call into question the current U.S. guidelines.”


Most study participants were men. Data on alcohol consumption came from the participants’ responses on questionnaires. Factors other than alcohol may have contributed to brain changes in the participants.

Find this study

Online June 6 in The BMJ (bmj.com; search for “alcohol consumption”).

(American Chemical Society)
Learn more

Information on how alcohol can affect health is available at pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/­publications (click on “Beyond Hangovers . . . ”) and mayoclinic.org (search for “moderate alcohol use”).

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.

(Osman Malik,Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)