A recent study has found that daily consumption of a moderate amount of alcohol may reduce a woman's risk of a decline in mental  abilities in old age.

Harvard University researchers found that elderly women who had consumed a small amount of alcohol daily, about one drink per day, were 20 percent less likely than women who abstained to have a big reduction in their cognitive ability.  One researcher likened it to getting a 20 percent discount in alcohol impairment.

The study by Meir Stampfer and colleagues was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Denis Evans is director of the Rush Institute of Healthy Aging in Chicago.

Professor Evans says while it's hard to reach a conclusion about whether alcohol is beneficial in old age based on a population study, he says, on balance, the study is a start in the right direction.

 "I think prevention of cognitive decline in old age is something we should really be [thinking] about as a society," he said.  "And I'm very glad to see someone as reputable as Dr. Stampfer and his colleagues taking on that task and taking on the problem."

The research looked at the alcohol consumption habits of more than 12,000 women, and compared their learning and memory skills between the ages of 70 and 81. The participants were part of the Nurse's Health Study, a large study that looks at a number of trends in women's health over time.

If it turns out that a small amount of alcohol reduces the risk of cognitive decline, that would add to the growing list of health benefits, including a reduction in the risk of heart disease, from a little alcohol each day.