The Harder You Drink, The Dumber You Are?
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The Harder You Drink, The Dumber You Are?


We often hear alcoholism is associated with above-average intelligence. Maybe it’s because our brains never stop chewing on negative experiences from the past and catastrophic predictions of the future, so we chug the vodka to drown out the cerebral noise. And since mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder have been scientifically linked to higher intelligence—and many alcoholics fall into the dual diagnosis camp—perhaps that supports the hypothesis that alkies are extra bright.

But the link between having high IQ and high alcohol consumption may be breaking down, at least where young Swedish men are concerned.

A Study of Swedes

The journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research just published a study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm that bucks the conventional wisdom, finding lower-IQ Swedish military conscripts had a higher rate of alcohol consumption than their smarter peers.

Sara Sjölund, a doctoral student at the renowned medical university and corresponding author of the study, collected data from 49,321 Swedish males born between 1949 to 1951 who were conscripted into the Swedish military from 1969 to 1971. At the time of their enlistment, these men were required to take an IQ test, as well as detail how much alcohol they consumed per week. They also had to fork over medical and psychiatric history, tobacco use and family medical history. After all, you don’t want a sociopath indiscriminately blowing innocent civilians to smithereens, although Scandinavians aren’t exactly known to be warmongers (except during their brutal Viking years).

Of those young Swedes, 2,781 said “no thanks” to liquor, 33,526 drank a small amount of booze, 9,547 had a moderate alcohol intake and 1,724 drank hard. For some reason, data for the other 1,743 individuals went MIA. Researchers used what’s called a “stanine” scale—a scale from one to nine—to measure the odds ratio between high IQs and the probability of drinking. The scale showed that the higher the IQ, the lower the odds that the dudes would drink like fish.

Researchers then went a step further and analyzed not only the quantity of booze consumed by the conscripts but also their drinking patterns. Of the 49,321 subjects, there were 5,898 cases of binge drinking reported and, once again, these cases corresponded to the guys who tested lower on the IQ test.

“We found that lower results on IQ tests in Swedish adolescent men are associated with a higher consumption of alcohol, measured in both terms of total intake and binge drinking,” Sjölund said.

The Real Scoop

Multiple studies have associated higher IQ with drinking, including a 2013 paper that analyzed the same Swedish conscripts and concluded a higher IQ was linked to moderate drinking among young males. So what’s the real scoop and why is there so much inconsistency?

Most past studies examined only the quantity of alcohol intake among subjects, while Sjölund’s also zeroed in on binge-drinking patterns. That sets the study apart from all the others, but it still only analyzes a small group of people—specifically young men and specifically Swedes. So extrapolating any of this to the global population of drinkers is a bit of a stretch. Not to mention that it’s a retrospective study without control groups. The researchers agree.

“I think that large parts of the association between IQ and alcohol consumption may be indirect and mediated by experiences in everyday life and differences in social situations,” says Daniel Falkstedt, assistant professor in the department of public health sciences at the Karolinska Institute. “For instance, in countries with weak social-safety nets and high alcohol consumption among low-wage workers and the unemployed, I assume the association could be stronger than in economically more equal countries.”

Who Does This Help?

Hey, if the Swedes want to scrutinize military records from the 1960s and 1970s to discover whether smart people drink more, be my guest. But it does seem like a waste of time and money. Who does this help? Alcoholics, whether smart or dumb or in-between, are gonna drink—no matter what.

We alkies have gone through the meat grinder plenty of times. At least let us cling to the idea that our potentially fatal disease might coincide with a few extra IQ points.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.