How Drinking Affects Memory

Alcohol abuse can inflict serious damage on the body, including liver disease, heart problems and cancer. Often overlooked is alcohol’s affect on memory and the brain.

Research shows that excessive drinking destroys brain tissue and can lead to several types of memory loss.  While long-term memories may retain intact, the brain’s ability to form new memories is seriously impaired.

These three types of memory loss that are warning signals for brain damage from alcohol abuse:

Brownouts – This type of memory loss is fragmentary.  An individual will have incomplete memories about what happened during a drinking episode.  The memory loss is usually temporary and some memory of events may be restored after discussion with others who were present during the events.

Blackouts – Most people who have indulged in binge drinking have had the unfortunate experience of waking up the next morning with no memory of what happened the night before.  This alcohol-induced amnesia is known as a blackout.  Unlike a brownout, the memories from a blackout will never be restored because excessive alcohol has inhibited the brain’s memory-making process.  Repeated alcohol blackouts can cause brain and nerve damage and lead to ongoing memory problems.

Alcohol Dementia – This is a serious condition caused by chronic alcoholism.  Its symptoms are almost identical to the dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease and may include memory loss, impaired judgment, difficulties in speaking and an inability to perform routine tasks.  Alcohol-related dementia can occur in drinkers as young as age thirty.

Alcohol dementia is associated with two related conditions:   Wernicke’s Disorder and Korsakoff Syndrome.  Wernicke’s is characterized by damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems brought on by low thiamine levels.  Korsakoff’s is an impairment of the brain’s memory and problem-solving functions.  Individuals afflicted by Korsakoff Syndrome often “remember” events in detail that they never actually experienced.

Many social drinkers have experienced a blackout after drinking too much alcohol on an empty stomach.  Not remembering where you were or what you did the night before is a frightening experience, but it pales in comparison to the type of permanent memory impairment that can come from chronic alcohol abuse.

If the symptoms of memory loss due to alcohol abuse are recognized early enough, it is possible to reverse the effects.  Lost memories will never return, but the ability to form new memories can be restored.  Rehabilitation treatment and therapy will help an alcohol abuser stop drinking and develop a healthier lifestyle that includes complete abstinence from alcohol, a healthy diet and vitamin supplements (including thiamine).

Click here to read more about alcohol abuse.

Recovering from substance use disorders is a challenging journey that feels more doable in an environment that tends to each individual’s complex needs and strengths. Our goal is to foster a treatment experience that is built on compassion, hope, and caring, and fueled by excellence in the provision of evidence-based and trauma-informed care.

– - Anonymous