Moderate drinking in older adult women has positive influence on memory, University of Texas at Austin nursing researcher says in new study

Sept. 29, 2004

AUSTIN, Texas—Moderate alcohol consumption among older adult women—two or fewer drinks a day—can benefit memory, according to recent findings by a University of Texas at Austin nursing researcher.

Dr. Graham McDougall, associate professor of nursing, will present results of the “Older Women’s Cognitive and Affective Response to Moderate Drinking” study Oct. 7-8 at the National Congress on the State of Science in Nursing Research in Washington, D.C.

“Moderate drinkers reported less depression, had higher self-reported health, performed better on instrumental everyday tasks, had stronger memory self-efficacy and improved memory performance,” said McDougall.

The research is part of a larger university memory study funded by the National Institutes of Health. In this five-year, $2.4 million study which began in 2001, McDougall is examining whether memory training has a positive effect on the elderly. Participants in the SeniorWISE study, with an average age of 75 and from the Central Texas area, undergo memory testing and are taught strategies for improving everyday memory. Findings on the men in the SeniorWISE research project will be published early next year.

The performance memory tests include such topics as remembering a story, route, hidden objects, future intentions and connecting random numbers and letters.  In all cases, the group who drank scored better than those who did not drink. “In addition to their actual performance on tests, the confidence of those who drank was higher and they used more strategies to facilitate memory,” McDougall said.

McDougall and School of Nursing colleagues, Drs. Teena Zimmerman and Heather Becker, asked participants in the SeniorWise project questions about alcohol use, race, marital status and education as they gathered background information. Their findings about moderate drinking and memory also will be published in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

“The effects of alcohol consumption in the elderly on their health, particularly memory, is just beginning to be explored,” said McDougall.  Other national studies already have found that moderate drinking can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cognitive disorders. At the same time, McDougall said, additional studies have shown that physical and psychological difficulties may be aggravated in elderly individuals who consume heavy amounts of alcohol.

More results of the alcohol consumption/memory study:

  • None of the participants acknowledged drinking more than two drinks a day.
  • Caucasian women had the largest number of moderate drinkers (53 percent vs. 47 percent) while the majority of African American and Hispanic women reported not drinking.
  • Women who moderately drank alcohol also performed better on attention, concentration, psychomotor skills, verbal-associative capacities and oral fluency.
  • Those who drank were more likely to be married than non-drinkers, while the non-drinkers were more likely to be widowed.
  • The average education of non-drinkers was 13 years compared with 15 years for drinkers.

“The circumstances under which people drink are complex and were not evaluated in this study,” McDougall said. “These findings should not be construed as an endorsement for drinking, and women who do not currently drink alcohol should not start on the basis of these findings.”

Instead of endorsing drinking behavior, the new findings suggest that future research might examine why the elderly make the decision to drink, McDougall said.

McDougall can be reached at 512-471-7936 or by e-mail at gmcdougall@mail.nur.utexas.edu.

For more information contact: Nancy Neff, School of Nursing, 512-471-6504.