Alcohol and Learning: Does Drinking Harm Memory?

Back in October, I published one of the blog’s most popular articles: a summary of a study showing that moderate drinking benefits memory.alcohol and learning

In brief, that study showed that drinking before learning muddled memories. However, moderate alcohol after learning produced a modest but clear benefit.

You can understand why this research proved such a hit among teachers.

Bottoms up!

More About Alcohol and Learning

Back in December, Olga Khazan published an article in the Atlantic summarizing several studies about the effects of alcohol on memory. Alas, her take on the literature sees more bad news than good.

Most tellingly, she focuses on a study in Britain that tracks participants’ health over time. The short version of the findings: more alcohol meant a smaller hippocampus. And, generally speaking, a healthy hippocampus helps us form declarative memories.

This study also looked at participants’ ability to generate words. (It’s a test called “lexical fluency.”) Here again, even moderate alcohol intake meant that — over time — people had a harder time with this particular test.

Alcohol and Learning: Not All Bad News

Any complex study produces complex results, and this one is no exception.

First, although “lexical fluency” declined over time as a result of alcohol, there was no correlation between alcohol consumption and cognitive ability as measured by multiple tests at the time of the study.

In other words: that one particular mental ability declined, but that didn’t mean all of them did.

Also: the decline in lexical fluency was significant for men, but not women. (I suspect that 51% of you are happy to read that fact.)

Putting It All Together, with a Cozy Glass of Wine

We would, of course, love to have a clear understanding of alcohol’s relationship to learning. And, to brain health. And, to health overall.

Unfortunately, there are too many variables, and too many ways to measure them, for a simple answer.

I myself take medical advice from my doctor, not the interwebs. And, although I don’t drink wine because it might help me learn more, I do enjoy a nice Napa Cab on a rainy Boston evening.

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