When you drink, particularly if you’re a heavy drinker, there are so many side effects and widespread damage that can occur in terms of your body and your health. Alcohol also significantly impacts your brain function, so what about alcohol and memory loss? Can alcohol cause memory loss?
Below we’ll explore the relationship between alcohol and memory loss, both in the short and long-term.
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Alcohol and Short-Term Memory Loss
In general the answer to the question of “can alcohol cause memory loss” is yes, it absolutely can. First, what about short-term memory loss? Memory loss and amnesia are two very common side effects of excessive drinking in the short-term. Binge drinking can cause you to black out, 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 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines two types of blackouts occurring 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 recall easily.
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 binge 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.
The reason for memory problems related to alcohol is because of the effects of ethanol in alcohol on certain areas of the brain.
When people black out from alcohol, it’s incredibly dangerous. It puts them at risk for being involved in violence, an accident or being the victim of an assault. Essentially, blacking out is a form of amnesia, which occurs because the alcohol is altering the activity of the hippocampus in the brain. While blacking out is a temporary form of amnesia, when you abuse alcohol over the long-term it can lead to more severe memory problems.
Alcohol and Long-Term Memory Loss
So, can alcohol cause memory loss in the short-term? Yes, it can in the form of blackouts. However, alcohol and memory loss can also be associated with one another in the long-term. Alcohol affects so many aspects and areas of the brain including neurotransmitters, the prefrontal cortex, and other areas.
One of the most damaging side effects of chronic alcohol abuse is called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, and this is a condition directly related to alcohol and memory loss. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a disorder of the brain that’s the result of a deficiency in vitamin B1. A vitamin B1 deficiency is extremely common in people with alcohol use disorder, and it’s essentially the result of permanent damage to the brain, primarily those parts of the brain involved with memory.
While there are a few other possible causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, alcoholism is the number one reason because people who suffer from alcoholism tend to have poor diet and alcohol also prevents their body from properly absorbing vitamin B1. Even without the occurrence of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, 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.
Alcohol and memory loss are associated in short and long-term scenarios. In the short-term, people who binge drink a lot at one time will often experience what’s typically referred to as a blackout because of the effects of the alcohol on their hippocampus. Someone who binge drank may wake up and feel as if they don’t remember portions of the night before, or maybe even the majority of the night. Blackouts put people at a higher risk for being involved in accidents and other dangerous situations. Even though you may seem awake and aware to the people around you when you black out, you have no idea what you’re doing.
Alcohol and memory loss are also associated in the long-term. Most chronic heavy drinkers display some level of memory loss and cognitive impairment over time. There’s also something called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which can seem a lot like Alzheimer’s disease and is the result of a long-term B1 deficiency resulting from alcoholism.