Alcohol significantly impacts your brain function, but what’s the exact link between it and short- and long-term memory loss?

When you drink, particularly if you’re a heavy drinker, there are many side effects and damage that can occur in terms of your body and your health. Alcohol also significantly impacts your brain function, but what about memory loss? Can drinking cause memory loss? Yes, it absolutely can.

Below we’ll explore the relationship between alcohol and memory loss.

Article at a Glance:

Alcohol and memory loss are associated in both short- and long-term scenarios.

In the short-term, people who binge drink can experience either a partial or complete blackout because of the effects of the alcohol on their hippocampus.

Most chronic heavy drinkers display some level of memory loss and cognitive impairment over time.

There’s also a form of brain damage called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is the result of a long-term B1 deficiency resulting from alcoholism.

How Does Alcohol Use Lead to Short-Term Memory Loss?

Memory loss and amnesia are two very common short-term side effects of excessive drinking. Binge drinking can cause you to blackout and while you may appear awake and alert, you have no idea what happened the next day. Your short-term memory can start to be affected after only a few drinks, in some cases.

The reason for alcohol-related memory problems is due to the effects of ethanol (contained in alcohol) has on certain areas of the brain. Blacking out, which is a form of amnesia or memory loss, occurs when alcohol is altering the activity of the hippocampus in the brain.

Partial vs. Complete Blackouts

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines two types of blackouts that occur as a result of alcohol.

The first is called a partial blackout, and this can happen with just a relatively small amount of alcohol. You may forget things like the names of people or information that you would ordinarily be able to easily recall.

A complete blackout refers to a time when you forget everything from a period of time. This also means that your judgment and cognition are completely impaired. People may tell you what occurred while you were drinking and even then, you aren’t able to recall it.

The reason binge drinking has these effects on your short-term memory and creates blackouts is because your blood alcohol level rises too quickly. How much alcohol will lead to a blackout depends on many individual factors, including your weight, whether or not you ate before drinking, and how much you drink, among other factors.

When people blackout, it’s incredibly dangerous. It puts them at risk of being involved in violence, an accident, or being the victim of an assault.

How Does Alcoholism Lead to Long-Term Memory Loss?

While blacking out is a temporary form of amnesia, long-term alcohol abuse, it can lead to more severe memory problems.

One of the most damaging side effects of chronic alcohol abuse to memory is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), and this is a condition directly related to alcohol and memory loss. WKS is a disorder of the brain that’s the result of a deficiency in vitamin B1. A vitamin B1 deficiency is common in people with alcohol use disorder, and leads to permanent damage to the brain, primarily those parts of the brain involved with memory.

While there are a few other possible causes of WKS, alcoholism is the number one reason because people who suffer from alcoholism tend to have poor diets which often prevents their bodies from properly absorbing vitamin B1.

Even without the occurrence of WKS, people who drink excessively often experience memory and cognition problems. For example, with alcohol and memory loss the majority of heavy, chronic drinkers have some level of impairment in their cognitive function. It can range from mild to moderate, and alcohol use in the long-term is related to reduced brain size.

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Editor – Nicole LaNeve
Nicole leads a team of passionate, experienced writers, editors and other contributors to create and share accurate, trustworthy information about drug and alcohol addiction, treatment and recovery for The Recovery Village and all Advanced Recovery Systems sites. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain“>Alcohol[…] on the Brain.” National Institutes of Health, October 2004. Accessed June 3, 2020.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.”Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Information Page.” NINDS, March 2019. Accessed June 18, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.