Skip to main content Accessibility help

The interplay between cognitive ability, alcohol consumption, and health characteristics

  • E. Degerud (a1), E. Ystrom (a1), K. Tambs (a1), I. Ariansen (a1), J. Mørland (a1) (a2), P. Magnus (a1), G. Davey Smith (a3) and Ø. Næss (a1) (a4)...



Higher cognitive ability is associated with favourable health characteristics. The relation between ability and alcohol consumption, and their interplay with other health characteristics, is unclear. We aimed to assess the relationship between cognitive ability and alcohol consumption and to assess whether alcohol consumption relates differently to health characteristics across strata of ability.


For 63 120 Norwegian males, data on cognitive ability in early adulthood were linked to midlife data on alcohol consumption frequency (times per month, 0–30) and other health characteristics, including cardiovascular risk factors and mental distress. Relations were assessed using linear regression and reported as unstandardised beta coefficients [95% confidence interval (CI)].


The mean ± s.d. frequency of total alcohol consumption in the sample was 4.0 ± 3.8 times per month. In the low, medium, and high group of ability, the frequencies were 3.0 ± 3.3, 3.7 ± 3.5, and 4.7 ± 4.1, respectively. In the full sample, alcohol consumption was associated with physical activity, heart rate, fat mass, smoking, and mental distress. Most notably, each additional day of consumption was associated with a 0.54% (0.44–0.64) and 0.14% (0.09–0.18) increase in the probability of current smoking and mental distress, respectively. In each strata of ability (low, medium, high), estimates were 0.87% (0.57–1.17), 0.48% (0.31–0.66) and 0.49% (0.36–0.62) for current smoking, and 0.44% (0.28–0.60), 0.10% (0.02–0.18), and 0.09% (0.03–0.15) for mental distress, respectively.


Participants with low cognitive ability drink less frequently, but in this group, more frequent alcohol consumption is more strongly associated with adverse health characteristics.


Corresponding author

Author for correspondence: E. Degerud, E-mail:


Hide All
Ariansen, I, Mortensen, L, Igland, J, Tell, GS, Tambs, K, Graff-Iversen, S et al. (2015) The educational gradient in coronary heart disease: the association with cognition in a cohort of 57279 male conscripts. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 69, 322329.
Batty, GD, Deary, IJ and Macintyre, S (2006) Childhood IQ and life course socioeconomic position in relation to alcohol induced hangovers in adulthood: the Aberdeen children of the 1950s study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 60, 872874.
Batty, GD, Deary, IJ, Schoon, I, Emslie, C, Hunt, K and Gale, CR (2008) Childhood mental ability and adult alcohol intake and alcohol problems: the 1970 British cohort study. American Journal of Public Health 98, 22372243.
Batty, GD, Deary, IJ, Schoon, I and Gale, CR (2007) Mental ability across childhood in relation to risk factors for premature mortality in adult life: the 1970 British cohort study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 61, 9971003.
Batty, GD, Shipley, MJ, Dundas, R, Macintyre, S, Der, G, Mortensen, LH et al. (2009) Does IQ explain socio-economic differentials in total and cardiovascular disease mortality? Comparison with the explanatory power of traditional cardiovascular disease risk factors in the Vietnam experience study. European Heart Journal 30, 19031909.
Beard, E, Brown, J, West, R, Angus, C, Brennan, A, Holmes, J et al. (2016) Deconstructing the alcohol harm paradox: a population based survey of adults in England. PloS ONE 11, e0160666.
Bramness, JG, Walby, FA, Hjellvik, V, Selmer, R and Tverdal, A (2010) Self-reported mental health and its gender differences as a predictor of suicide in the middle-aged. American Journal of Epidemiology 172, 160166.
Brien, SE, Ronksley, PE, Turner, BJ, Mukamal, KJ and Ghali, WA (2011) Effect of alcohol consumption on biological markers associated with risk of coronary heart disease: systematic review and meta-analysis of interventional studies. BMJ 342, d636.
Chen, L, Smith, GD, Harbord, RM and Lewis, SJ (2008) Alcohol intake and blood pressure: a systematic review implementing a Mendelian randomization approach. PLoS Medicine 5, e52.
Cheng, H and Furnham, A (2013) Correlates of adult binge drinking: evidence from a British cohort. PloS ONE 8, e78838.
Clouston, SA, Richards, M, Cadar, D and Hofer, SM (2015) Educational inequalities in health behaviors at midlife: is there a role for early-life cognition? Journal of Health and Social Behavior 56, 323340.
Corley, J, Jia, X, Brett, CE, Gow, AJ, Starr, JM, Kyle, JA et al. (2011) Alcohol intake and cognitive abilities in old age: the Lothian birth cohort 1936 study. Neuropsychology 25, 166175.
Deary, IJ (2013) Intelligence. Current Biology 23, R673R676.
Devlin, B, Daniels, M and Roeder, K (1997) The heritability of IQ. Nature 388, 468471.
Fleming, JP, Kellam, SG and Brown, CH (1982) Early predictors of age at first use of alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 9, 285303.
Gale, CR, Hatch, SL, Batty, GD and Deary, IJ (2009) Intelligence in childhood and risk of psychological distress in adulthood: the 1958 national child development survey and the 1970 British cohort study. Intelligence 37, 592599.
Gottfredson, LS (1997) Mainstream science on intelligence: an editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography (reprinted from The Wall Street Journal, 1994) Intelligence 24, 1323.
Hakulinen, C, Elovainio, M, Batty, GD, Virtanen, M, Kivimaki, M and Jokela, M (2015) Personality and alcohol consumption: pooled analysis of 72949 adults from eight cohort studies. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 151, 110114.
Harrell, FE (2013) Harrell Miscellaneous ‘Hmisc’. Package for R statistical software, version 4.0-3,
Hatch, SL, Jones, PB, Kuh, D, Hardy, R, Wadsworth, ME and Richards, M (2007) Childhood cognitive ability and adult mental health in the British 1946 birth cohort. Social Science and Medicine 64, 22852296.
Hunt, E, Coggan, P, Berg, C and Tianwattanatana, P (1984) The effects of social drinking practices on cognitive performance. Department of Psychology, University of Washington, unpublished manuscript, 1984, described in Parsons OA. Cognitive functioning in sober social drinkers: a review and critique. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 1986;47(2):101114.
Johansen, D, Friis, K, Skovenborg, E and Gronbaek, M (2006) Food buying habits of people who buy wine or beer: cross sectional study. BMJ 332, 519522.
Johnson, W, Hicks, BM, McGue, M and Iacono, WG (2009) How intelligence and education contribute to substance use: hints from the Minnesota twin family study. Intelligence 37, 613624.
Kanazawa, S and Hellberg, JEEU (2010) Intelligence and substance use. Review of General Psychology 14, 382396.
Knott, CS, Coombs, N, Stamatakis, E and Biddulph, JP (2015) All cause mortality and the case for age specific alcohol consumption guidelines: pooled analyses of up to 10 population based cohorts. BMJ 350, h384.
Kubicka, L, Matejcek, Z, Dytrych, Z and Roth, Z (2001) IQ and personality traits assessed in childhood as predictors of drinking and smoking behaviour in middle-aged adults: a 24-year follow-up study. Addiction 96, 16151628.
Latvala, A, Rose, RJ, Pulkkinen, L, Dick, DM and Kaprio, J (2014) Childhood verbal development and drinking behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood: a discordant twin-pair analysis. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research 38, 457465.
Management of Substance Abuse Team (2014) Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 Ed. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
Marmot, M and Kivimaki, M (2009) Social inequalities in mortality: a problem of cognitive function? European Heart Journal 30, 18191820.
Mortensen, LH, Sorensen, TI and Gronbaek, M (2005) Intelligence in relation to later beverage preference and alcohol intake. Addiction 100, 14451452.
Muller, M, Kowalewski, R, Metzler, S, Stettbacher, A, Rossler, W and Vetter, S (2013) Associations between IQ and alcohol consumption in a population of young males: a large database analysis. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 48, 19932005.
Nickerson, R (1998) Confirmation bias: a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology 2, 175220.
Norwegian Directorate of Health (2012) Unpublished survey of the general population, performed in conjunction with a campaign named “Hvite uker”. The survey can be obtained by contacting the Directorate:
Ochsner, KN and Gross, JJ (2005) The cognitive control of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9, 242249.
Ochsner, KN, Silvers, JA and Buhle, JT (2012) Functional imaging studies of emotion regulation: a synthetic review and evolving model of the cognitive control of emotion. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1251, E1E24.
Osterberg, EL (2011) Alcohol tax changes and the use of alcohol in Europe. Drug and Alcohol Review 30, 124129.
Parker, ES and Noble, EP (1977) Alcohol consumption and cognitive functioning in social drinkers. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 38, 12241232.
Plomin, R and Deary, IJ (2015) Genetics and intelligence differences: five special findings. Molecular Psychiatry 20, 98108.
Polderman, TJ, Benyamin, B, de Leeuw, CA, Sullivan, PF, van Bochoven, A, Visscher, PM et al. (2015) Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nature Genetics 47, 702709.
Rehm, J, Mathers, C, Popova, S, Thavorncharoensap, M, Teerawattananon, Y and Patra, J (2009) Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders. Lancet 373, 22232233.
Richards, M, Stephen, A and Mishra, G (2010) Health returns to cognitive capital in the British 1946 birth cohort. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies 1, 16.
Roerecke, M and Rehm, J (2010) Irregular heavy drinking occasions and risk of ischemic heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology 171, 633644.
Roerecke, M and Rehm, J (2012) The cardioprotective association of average alcohol consumption and ischaemic heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Addiction 107, 12461260.
Ronksley, PE, Brien, SE, Turner, BJ, Mukamal, KJ and Ghali, WA (2011) Association of alcohol consumption with selected cardiovascular disease outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 342, d671.
RStudio-Team (2015) RStudio: Integrated Development for R. Boston, MA: RStudio, Inc.
Sjolund, S, Hemmingsson, T and Allebeck, P (2015) IQ and level of alcohol consumption-findings from a national survey of Swedish conscripts. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research 39, 548555.
Søgaard, A, Bjelland, I, Tell, GS and Røysamb, E (2003) A comparison of the CONOR mental health index to the HSCL-10 and HADS. Norsk Epidemiologi 13, 279284.
Stautz, K, Pechey, R, Couturier, DL, Deary, IJ and Marteau, TM (2016) Do executive function and impulsivity predict adolescent health behaviour after accounting for intelligence? Findings from the ALSPAC cohort. PloS ONE 11, e0160512.
Sundet, JM, Barlaug, DG and Torjussen, TM (2004) The end of the Flynn effect? A study of secular trends in mean intelligence test scores of Norwegian conscripts during half a century. Intelligence 32, 349362.
Sundet, JM, Eriksen, W and Tambs, K (2008) Intelligence correlations between brothers decrease with increasing age difference evidence for shared environmental effects in young adults. Psychological Science 19, 843847.
Sundet, JM, Tambs, K, Magnus, P and Berg, K (1988) On the question of secular trends in the heritability of intelligence-test scores – a study of Norwegian twins. Intelligence 12, 4759.
Taylor, MD, Hart, CL, Davey Smith, G, Starr, JM, Hole, DJ, Whalley, LJ et al. (2003) Childhood mental ability and smoking cessation in adulthood: prospective observational study linking the Scottish mental survey 1932 and the midspan studies. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57, 464465.
Toplak, ME, Sorge, GB, Benoit, A, West, RF and Stanovich, KE (2010) Decision-making and cognitive abilities: a review of associations between Iowa gambling task performance, executive functions, and intelligence. Clinical Psychology Review 30, 562581.
Tucker-Drob, EM and Bates, TC (2016) Large cross-national differences in gene x socioeconomic status interaction on intelligence. Psychological Science 27, 138149.
Wennberg, P, Andersson, T and Bohman, M (2002) Psychosocial characteristics at age 10; differentiating between adult alcohol use pathways: a prospective longitudinal study. Addictive Behaviors 27, 115130.
White, J and Batty, GD (2011) Intelligence across childhood in relation to illegal drug use in adulthood: 1970 British cohort study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 66, 767774.
White, JW, Gale, CR and Batty, GD (2012) Intelligence quotient in childhood and the risk of illegal drug use in middle-age: the 1958 National child development survey. Annals of Epidemiology 22, 654657.
Wickham, H (2009) ggplot2: Elegant Graphics for Data Analysis. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Windle, M and Blane, HT (1989) Cognitive ability and drinking behavior in a national sample of young adults. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research 13, 4348.
Ystrom, E, Reichborn-Kjennerud, T, Aggen, SH and Kendler, KS (2011) Alcohol dependence in men: reliability and heritability. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research 35, 17161722.


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Degerud et al. supplementary material
Figure S1

 Word (131 KB)
131 KB
Supplementary materials

Degerud et al. supplementary material
Table S1

 Word (17 KB)
17 KB

The interplay between cognitive ability, alcohol consumption, and health characteristics

  • E. Degerud (a1), E. Ystrom (a1), K. Tambs (a1), I. Ariansen (a1), J. Mørland (a1) (a2), P. Magnus (a1), G. Davey Smith (a3) and Ø. Næss (a1) (a4)...


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed