The alcohol paradox: Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption, cognitive function, and brain volume

Benjamin J.K. Davis, Jean Sebastian Vidal, Melissa Garcia, Thor Aspelund, Mark A. Van Buchem, Maria K. Jonsdottir, Sigurdur Sigurdsson, Tamara B. Harris, Vilmundur Gudnason, Lenore J. Launer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background: Studies of older persons show consumption of light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol is positively associated with cognitive function and, separately, is negatively associated with total brain volume (TBV). This is paradoxical as generally, cognitive function is positively associated with TBV. We examined the relationships of TBV, global cognitive function (GCF), and alcohol consumption in a population-based cohort of 3,363 men and women (b. 1907-1935) participating in the Age Gene/Environment Susceptibility-Reykjavik Study (2002-2006) and who were free of dementia or mild cognitive impairment Methods: Drinking status (never, former, and current) and current amount of alcohol consumed were assessed by questionnaire. GCF is a composite score derived from a battery of cognitive tests. TBV, standardized to head size, is estimated quantitatively from brain magnetic resonance imaging. Results: Among women and not men, adjusting for demographic and cardiovascular risk factors, current drinkers had significantly higher GCF scores than abstainers and former drinkers (p <.0001); and GCF was associated with amount consumed. TBV was not associated with drinking status or amount consumed in men or women. GCF and TBV did significantly differ in their associations across alcohol categories (pinteraction <.001). Within categories of alcohol intake, GCF and TBV were positively associated. Conclusions: The difference in associations of alcohol intake to brain structure and function suggests there may be unmeasured factors that contribute to maintaining better GCF relative to TBV. However, at higher levels of reasonable alcohol consumption, there may be factors leading to reduced brain volume.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1528-1535
Number of pages8
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series A Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Alcohol consumption
  • Brain aging-epidemiology
  • Cognitive aging
  • Imaging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aging
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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