Skip to content

Can Alcohol Damage My Memories

Can Alcohol Damage My Memories

Understanding how alcohol can impact your brain negatively and damage your memory can motivate you to get sober and avoid relapse

Problem drinkers will be the first to admit that alcohol has adverse effects on their brains. After a few drinks or a binge, difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times and impaired memory make that point abundantly clear. Many of these impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly go away when drinking stops. In contrast, people who drink heavily over a long period may suffer from permanent brain deficits.

Your Brain: Gauging the Impact Alcohol Has

Heavy drinking has extensive effects on the brain, according to myriad articles supported by the National Institute of Health (NIH). Negative health consequences may range from simple slips in memory to permanent, debilitating conditions that require lifetime custodial care. Even moderate drinking leads to short-term impairment as evidenced by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving.

The damage incurred by addictive drinking varies from person. Several factors that include how and to what extent brain functioning is impaired. They include the following:

  • How much a person drinks
  • How frequently a person drinks
  • How old a person is when he or she begins drinking
  • How many years the person has been drinking
  • Age
  • Education level
  • Gender
  • Genetic background
  • Family history of substance abuse

A person’s overall health is another variable that can be protective if the individual is in relatively good shape or detrimental if the person is in poor physical condition.

Blackouts and Memory Lapses

After only a few drinks, alcohol produces detectable impairments in memory. The degree of impairment grows as more alcohol is consumed. Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can lead to blackouts. Binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks in about 2 hours for men or four or more drinks for women, and blackouts go hand in hand. When people drink too much and too quickly, their blood alcohol levels rise rapidly. Consequently, they experience an interval of time in which they cannot recall key details or even entire events. Key facts about blackouts include the following:

  • Blackouts are more common among social drinkers than previously assumed.
  • Blackouts should be viewed as a potential consequence of acute intoxication regardless of age or whether the drinker is clinically dependent on alcohol.
  • Equal numbers of men and women reported experiencing blackout despite the fact that men drink significantly more often and more heavily than the women.

Females are at greater risk than males for experiencing blackouts most likely due to how they metabolize alcohol. Women are also more susceptible than males to milder forms of alcohol–induced memory impairments even when men and women consume comparable amounts of alcohol. Studies also showed that both men and women have similar learning and memory problems as a result of heavy drinking, but women experience deficits twice as quickly say researchers published in the scientific journal Alcohol Research & Health. These findings indicate that women’s brains, like their other organs, are more vulnerable to alcohol–induced damage than men’s.

Brain Damage from Other Causes

People who have been drinking large amounts of alcohol for long periods of time run the risk of developing severe and persistent changes in the brain for other reasons as well. Damage can also result directly from effects of alcohol on the brain or indirectly from a poor general health status or severe liver disease.

Thiamine deficiency is one common condition that occurs in people with alcoholism as the result of poor nutrition. The Mayo Clinic cites thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, as an essential nutrient required by all tissues including the brain. Up to 80 percent of alcoholics, however, have a deficiency in thiamine. As a result, some go on to develop serious brain disorders such as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), a disease marked by conditions that include the following:

  • A short–lived, severe condition called Wernicke’s encephalopathy characterized by mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, and difficulty with muscle coordination
  • A long–lasting and debilitating condition known as Korsakoff’s psychosis, a condition characterized by persistent learning and memory problems

The cerebellum, an area of the brain responsible for coordinating movement and perhaps even some forms of learning, is the region most frequently damaged in association with chronic alcohol consumption. The good news is, administering thiamine helps to improve brain function especially in patients in the early stages of conditions such as WKS. When damage to the brain is more severe, the course of care shifts. Focus turns from treatment toward providing support for the patient and his or her family. An estimated 25 percent of patients with permanent brain damage and significant loss of cognitive skills must receive custodial care.

Figuring out what makes some alcoholics vulnerable to brain damage and others not remains a mystery. One thing recovery experts know for sure is that most alcoholics with cognitive impairment show at least some improvement in brain structure and functioning within a year of abstinence. The sooner an alcoholic seeks professional treatment and gets sober, the better become his or her odds of regaining brain health.

Help for Alcohol Addiction

You can recover from alcoholism. Counselors are available at our toll-free 24 hour helpline to help you make the transition from addiction to a drug-free life. You don’t have to feel alone when help is just one phone call away. You never have to go back to a life of addiction. Please call today.