Drink to your health?

We’ve all noted the fickleness of the nutritional standards. One week we’re told that eating eggs is tantamount to courting death; the next week, they’re deemed safe in moderation. One second eating pasta is called the Mediterranean Diet; the next second, enjoying a spaghetti dinner is the equivalent of mainlining lard. First coffee is good for you; and then it’s bad for you. We all switch to decaf only to find out that it’s even worse for you.

Up until about three months ago, I was as bewildered as everyone else. But now that I spend a good chunk of my time perusing scientific journals, I’m beginning to understand what fuels this ceaseless fluctuation: headlines.

We live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. No news was once good news. But these days, no news means a massive void on television and the Internet. Media minions are constantly on the look out for anything that faintly resembles a “breaking” story. And contrarian scientific studies make for good headlines.

Unfortunately, few of us have time to read the articles that accompany these headlines. We do a quick scan of the first paragraph and accept this week’s findings as gospel. We never get to the part where the researcher responsible for the study “qualifies” his or her claims.

Last week, the American Heart Association’s regrettably named journal, Stroke, published an article that’s bound to be picked up by the mainstream media. The headline will read something like this: Drinking Shown to Improve Cognition in Women.

Speed-reading the first paragraph of this piece will be enough to convince many women that it’s time to break open the chardonnay. Here’s what it will say:

After conducting a randomized study of 3,298 Manhattan residents, Columbia neurologist Clinton Wright found that “women who had up to two drinks a day scored about 20 percent higher on the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE) than women who didn’t drink at all or who consumed less than one drink a week.


Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? And it won’t seem any less so if you read on to the second graf, which will include official sounding details like:

This study was conducted in a subsample of 2,215 [stroke-free] participants with both alcohol and carotid plaque data available. Their average age was 69. Fifty-four percent of the participants were Hispanic, 25 percent black and 21 percent white.


Don’t get me wrong. Wright followed all of the appropriate protocols. And his findings — as far as they go — are credible. But as he states quite plainly in the latter half of the Science Daily article, “the study is limited by the use of the MMSE, which is not a very sensitive test.”

What the Science Daily reporter neglects to mention is just how limited the MMSE is. When I think cognition test, I think IQ test. The MMSE is to the IQ test, as the 1-yard dash is to the marathon. The test was not intended to measure normal cognitive functioning–it was designed to screen for dementia.

Here’s a sampling of the questions:

*What is the year, month, date, season, day of the week?
*In which state, county, town/city, hospital/street are you now?
*Repeat these three words – e.g. car, ball, key
*Name these objects – e.g. key, watch
*Repeat the three words from before

You get the idea. This is not a high level assessment. If I administered this test to a group of stroke-free women, I’d be far less concerned with the people that performed well, then with those that performed poorly. Clearly, something was terribly wrong with those women.

It seems to me that all Wright has proven at this point is that moderate drinking may help women ward off dementia. Frankly, that’s enough to convince me to keep drinking. But it’s far cry from improving normal cognition.