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A Scotch a Day

Social drinking may—or may not—be bad for one’s health, but for New Yorkers it has other, essential benefits.

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Alcohol can impart a false sense of confidence, which could be why it’s so popular in New York. Without the soft-focus self-esteem that a vodka martini or a few glasses of Pinot Grigio provide, it would be significantly harder to socialize here. And if drinking on the job is usually a bad idea, drinking for one’s career can occasionally be a good one. Why else did they give Manhattan its own cocktail?

Social drinking, however, is never meant to resemble a scene from Barfly. That would generally defeat its purpose. But according to a study published this month in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the insides of many social drinkers’ heads may not be all that different from those of terminal alcoholics.

The study, done at the University of California, San Francisco, found that people who have 100 drinks a month or more sustain minor brain damage. For women, the figure is 80 drinks. “Our heavy-drinkers sample was significantly impaired on measures of working memory, processing speed, attention, executive function, and balance,” the researchers wrote.

“Executive function,” “processing speed,” “working memory”: News of the study circulated rapidly via e-mail. But the number of drinks did seem rather high, until, to some social drinkers, it didn’t. “It’s fairly frightening,” says Chris Wilcha, an independent documentary producer. “Lately I’ve had some big dinners when I’d drink, like, three glasses of wine. And when I think back on the last month . . . ”

But before getting overly concerned, it’s useful to put this study in context: Of the innumerable other drinking studies that have come before it, many seemingly contradicting each other. Drinking increases the chances of heart disease and cancer. Drinking moderately decreases the chances of heart disease and cancer. Drinking red wine moderately works better than exercise and diet to lower the risk of heart disease, and also may prevent breast cancer. Spanish sherry, according to researchers at the University of Seville, lowers cholesterol. Two or more beers a day can cause gout. However, Guinness, rich in dark flavonoids, may prevent heart attacks.

A study on the side benefits of temporarily lowering New Yorkers’ stress levels via alcohol (or a study on how much they rise upon hearing such conflicting reports) has yet to be commissioned. In the meantime, we’re left to process the others ourselves. And, perhaps, to do our own studies—of ourselves. One of which has yielded the following result: The limit of emotional tolerance plus personal confidence minus the number of people you should really try to talk to in a room and multiplied by fear, is equivalent to exactly one cocktail per hour.


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