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Caffeine and a healthy diet may boost memory, and thinking skills; alcohol’s effect uncertain

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Can Coffee and Alcohol Improve Cognitive Performance?

Many Americans rely on a morning cup of coffee to kick-start their day, but new research suggests that caffeine may offer more than just a temporary mental boost. A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that caffeine may also have longer-term effects on cognitive function. However, while moderate alcohol consumption may also benefit mental performance, it is unclear where the line between helpful and harmful lies. Perhaps the best approach for maintaining cognitive skills as we age is to eat a healthy diet.

The study examined the impact of caffeine, alcohol, and nutrient intake on cognitive function in 727 participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Overall, those who followed a healthy diet scored higher on ten memory tests than those with lower diet scores. The same was true for those who consumed more caffeine. However, the effect of moderate alcohol consumption was mixed.

The caffeine-brain connection is due to the way caffeine tricks the brain. Caffeine is not only a brain stimulant, but it also blocks receptors for a chemical called adenosine, which usually prevents the release of excitatory brain chemicals. By removing adenosine, caffeine allows these brain-sparking chemicals to flow more freely, providing a boost of energy and potentially improving mental performance while also slowing age-related mental decline.

However, the study is not conclusive on the impact of caffeine on memory. While it showed that people who consumed more caffeine performed better on tests of cognitive function, particularly those over the age of 70, the results were not as significant for memory tests or other measures of cognitive ability. Previous studies have shown mixed results in terms of caffeine's impact on long-term memory performance and cognitive ability.

Moderate alcohol consumption appeared to improve working memory and attention, especially in women and those over 70, but it may come at the cost of declines in skills such as executive function and global thinking. Excessive drinking, defined as more than two drinks a day for men or more than one a day for women, can harm the brain, causing everything from short-term memory lapses to permanent problems.

The study also found a link between a healthy diet and cognitive performance, as those who consumed nutrient-rich foods had better attention and memory. A healthy diet was also associated with good thinking skills in women and participants under age 70. In particular, the Mediterranean diet, which includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, olive oil, and whole grains, showed promise in preserving memory and preventing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

In conclusion, maintaining a healthy diet is crucial for maintaining memory and cognitive skills into old age. While moderate caffeine and alcohol consumption may have benefits, excessive consumption can harm the brain.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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