How Heavy Alcohol Use Can Damage Memory Function


Published On: April 12, 2024

We’ve all been there – you walk into a room only to stand there dazed, trying to remember what you came in for.

It’s normal to forget where you put your keys, double-book yourself on the same day or experience a little bit of brain fog every now and then.

But if you are experiencing a lot of dysfunction, or memory loss that’s unusual for your age, there may be other factors at play.

One of these factors is alcohol.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

A brain and neurons with alcohol damage

78% of people with diagnosed alcoholism demonstrate some degree of brain pathology. [1]

Brain pathology is an umbrella term that includes:

  • Brain tumours
  • Strokes
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Any disorders, diseases or pathological conditions that affect the brain [2]

How Does Alcohol Affect the Adolescent Brain?

Teenage boy walking down road with backpack, head down

Teenage brains are still developing and going through complex changes. These changes continue until well into the 20s.

Adolescent brains are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol for two reasons:

  1. They have higher brain plasticity – brain plasticity makes it easier to adapt to experiences, which can make teenagers more likely to experience cognitive dysfunction, memory problems, and poor school performance [3]
  2. They take more risks – teenagers are already more prone to harmful behaviour like drink driving, unsafe sex and other substance use, and alcohol can exaggerate this further [4]

This doesn’t bode well, given that the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), reported that about 34.2% of people aged 12 to 20 have tried alcohol at least once in their lifetime. [5]

Can Drinking When Pregnant Affect My Baby’s Brain?

A pregnant woman standing over a crib thinking about alcoholism

Prenatal alcohol exposure (drinking during pregnancy) can result in harm to the growing foetus.

The effects of alcohol in the womb can even last into the child’s life once they’re born.

One of these conditions is called foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Cognitive characteristics of FASD include issues with:

  • Learning, thinking, concentration, and memory
  • Communication and speech
  • Managing emotions and developing social skills
  • Hyperactivity and impulse control [6]

How Does Alcohol Overdose Affect the Brain?

An ambulance with a person being helped in the back during alcohol overdose

Alcohol overdose is when your blood alcohol levels reach a point where your basic life-supporting functions like breathing, a beating heart and temperature control shut down.

This can cause:

  • Falling unconscious
  • Vomiting
  • Low body temperature
  • Trouble breathing
  • Seizures
  • Poor gag reflex [7]

What’s the Science Behind Alcohol and Memory Problems? A woman with her hand over her face in worry

Research has found that people with alcoholism show high levels of white matter loss in the brain.

This is most common in:

  • The prefrontal cortex – responsible for learning tasks, concepts and rules [8]
  • The corpus callosum – responsible for connecting the two hemispheres in the brain, and controlling movements, cognitive function and vision [9]
  • The cerebellum – responsible for physical gait, posture and balance [10]

You can prevent FASD by quitting or cutting down your drinking while pregnant.

How Much Alcohol Does it Take to Damage Brain Function?

A bartender measuring a unit of alcohol into a cocktail shaker

Any amount of alcohol can damage the brain, however the risk increases with long-term heavy drinking.

This includes binge drinking, or drinking every day.

People who drink heavily are 24% more likely to have difficulties with their memory than people who drink small amounts or nothing. [11]

Short-Term Effects on Memory

Alcohol causes memory ‘blackouts’. These are the unnerving gaps in your memory after a heavy night, where you struggle to recall where you were, who you were with, what you did or said.

This happens when your blood levels reach around 0.16%.

Often, this is caused by:

  • Drinking a large amount very quickly
  • Drinking on an empty stomach
  • Drinking while on certain medications

These things can make alcohol levels build up in your system more quickly, and your body struggles to filter them out fast enough. [12]

Alcohol also impairs:

  • The part of your brain responsible for judgement and decision making – This can make you more reckless and uninhibited
  • Your nervous system – This affects coordination and movement, speech and focus, and makes you more likely to have an accident like hitting your head [13]

Long-Term Effects on Memory

Research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has found that you drink every day for weeks or months, alcohol causes progressive changes in the very structure of your brain. [14]

Alcohol is neurotoxic, which means that it destroys the nervous system as well as the brain.

The part of the brain responsible for memory making can be broken down, meaning that even after you stop drinking, your memory and intellect can be affected. [15]

How Does Heavy Alcohol Use Damage Memory Function?

A woman sleeping

Any amount of alcohol affects our brain and our memory, but the real danger lies in drinking large amounts every day for a long period of time.

How do I Know if Alcohol Has Damaged My Memory?

Have you noticed you’re having problems paying attention to things? Have people told you you’ve spoken to them but you don’t remember?

These are warning signs that your memory may be failing.

While memory loss can be caused by natural ageing, stress, and many other problems, heavy drinking can be to blame.

What is Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (ARBD)?

A doctor typing on a keyboard with a stethoscope to her side

ARBD is a term used to describe all of the ways in which heavy drinking can cause long-term damage to the brain. [16]

What Causes ARBD?

Thiamine (vitamin B1) Deficiency

Alcohol can make it hard to absorb certain vitamins.

One of these is vitamin B1, also known as thiamine – a building block of the brain.

Memory loss is a symptom of prolonged B1 deficiency [17].

Dehydration

Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you pass more urine. It does this because it is trying to rid your body of the toxin.

This can lead to dehydration, because your body loses too much moisture.

Dehydration caused by alcohol can cause brain cells to shrink and die.

This means that you lose brain cells, and this can make your memory worse.

Head Injuries

When you’re drunk, you’re more likely to fall and hit your head. Head injuries can cause trauma to the brain, which may result in memory loss.

Head injuries account for around 25% of people with ARBD.

Blood Vessel Damage

Alcohol damages the heart, which in turn can cause to high blood sugar and cholesterol.

These issues can lead to heart attacks and strokes, which have the power to damage the brain and cause memory problems.

What are the Different Types of ARBD?

An older man looking over the mountains

  1. Alcohol Amnesic Syndrome – Short-term memory loss, trouble concentrating, and confabulation (false memories)
  2. Alcohol-Related Dementia – Similar to Alzheimer’s Disease
  3. Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome (WKS) – Wernicke’s Encephalopathy (brain swelling), and Korsakoff’s Psychosis (severe confusion). This is the most serious form of ARBD
  4. Hepatic Encephalopathy (HE) – when the liver has been severely damaged, chemicals like ammonia, build up in the blood and damage the brain. This causes confusion, forgetfulness, sleeplessness and personality changes
  5. Frontal lobe damage – damage to the brain’s control centre causes poor impulse control, and difficulty making decisions, planning, problem-solving and assessing risk

Who gets ARBD?

The more alcohol you drink, and the longer this heavy drinking goes on for, the more likely you are to develop some form of ARBD.

Men who regularly drink over 50 units of alcohol a week (that’s around five bottles of wine, or 20 cans of beer, and women who drink 25 units a week (roughly two and a half bottles of wine, or 10 cans of beer), for longer than five years are more likely to experience memory problems. [18]

Can ARBD Be Treated?

A woman taking a white pill

With the right support, ARBD can greatly improve.

In people who give up alcohol, the majority of damage can be reversed. [19]

Is it Possible to Fully Recover from ARBD?

The brain’s ability to return to normal after long-term sobriety is still in research.

A number of studies do indicate that at least some alcohol use disorder induced brain changes can improve and possibly reverse with months of abstinence from drinking. [20]

How Can I Get Support With ARBD?

Therapist speaking with a patient about getting sober and staying sober

Make an appointment with your GP, and be honest about how much you’re drinking and when.

It can be helpful to note down how many drinks you’ve had, so you have an accurate figure.

How Can I Get a Diagnosis of ARBD?

Healthcare professionals test memory problems.

One of these tests is the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE).

These tests examine whether you have any brain damage, and if this damage is short-term or long-term. [21]

How Can I Improve My Memory?

Doses of pills segmented in a packet.

Cut Down on Your Drinking

The best thing you can do to improve your memory if you’re a heavy drinker is to quit alcohol or significantly reduce your drinking.

The NHS recommends:

  • Don’t not exceed 14 units of alcohol a week
  • Drink alcohol over a number of days, not all in one go
  • Try to have several no-alcohol days a week

Eat Nutritious Meals

Ensure you get plenty of thiamine (vitamin B1).

Foods high in B1 include:

  • Pork
  • Beans and lentils
  • Fish
  • Green peas
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Yogurt
  • Enriched cereals, breads, noodles and rice
  • Fortified breakfast cereals [22]

If you are drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week, take a vitamin B1 supplement daily, as your body will need an extra boost in order to absorb enough of the nutrient.

How Can I Adapt to a Poor Memory?

Pill doses in a pill packet

Headway, the brain injury association recommends the following steps to improving your life and adjusting to life with a memory impairment:

  1. Create a supportive environment – Keep a notepad by the phone so you can easily jot messages down
  2. Use memory aids – Keep medication in an area where you’ll see it, and make use of whiteboards for writing messages on
  3. Follow a routine – Make a habit of watering the plants or going shopping on a set day of the week
  4. Improve your wellbeing – Poor mental health can exacerbate memory problems, so make sure you’re talking to people and spending time doing activities you enjoy
  5. Use technology – Set important dates in your phone calendar, and set reminders and alarms [23]

How Do I Know if I Have a Drinking Problem?

A man drinking an alcoholic beverage out of a mug and looking out of a window

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism lays out these warning signs that you may be drinking too much:

  • You struggle to cut down or quit drinking
  • You need to drink more than you once did, as you’ve built up a tolerance
  • You drink or think about alcohol compulsively
  • You drink even though you experience mental or physical health complications
  • You drink more or longer than you meant to
  • Drinking interferes with your family life, friendships, or work
  • Loved ones or trusted friends are concerned about your drinking [24]

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is an umbrella term that encompasses alcohol addiction, dependence and the informal term ‘alcoholism’.

People who are addicted to alcohol feel they cannot slow down or stop their use, and experience compulsive and overwhelming thoughts about drinking.[25]

How Can I Get Help for Alcoholism?

A woman holding a mobile phone speaking to a rehab referral hotline

Rehab 4 Alcoholism is made up of people who are in recovery and understand what you and your family are going through.

Our team run a free, non-judgemental helpline that can provide you with advice. We also offer referrals to top rehabs across the UK.

For more information about alcoholism, call our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

References

[1] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4684-3632-7_5

[2] https://dictionary.apa.org/brain-pathology

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30557142/

[4] White A, Hingson, R. A primer on alcohol and adolescent brain development: implications for prevention. In: Sloboda Z, Petras H, Robertson E, Hingson R., editors. Prevention of substance use: advances in prevention science. New York City, Springer Cham; 2019, p. 3-19.

[5] https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt42728/NSDUHDetailedTabs2022/NSDUHDetailedTabs2022/NSDUHDetTabsSect2pe2022.htm#tab2.8b

[6] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/foetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder/

[7] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/alcohol-and-brain-overview

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693009/#:~:text=The%20prefrontal%20cortex%20receives%20highly,contingencies%2C%20concepts%20and%20task%20rules.

[9] https://www.osmosis.org/answers/corpus-callosum#:~:text=The%20corpus%20callosum%20is%20a,seizures%2C%20stroke%2C%20and%20infections.

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538167/#:~:text=Introduction,unable%20to%20initiate%20muscle%20contraction.

[11] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12824818/

[12]https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/interrupted-memories-alcohol-induced-blackouts#:~:text=Alcohol%2Drelated%20blackouts%20are%20gaps,brain%20area%20called%20the%20hippocampus.

[13] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/risks/

[14] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/alcohol-and-brain-overview

[15] Sullivan EV, Harris RA, Pfefferbaum A. Alcohol’s Effects on Brain and Behavior. Alcohol Res Health. 2010;33(1-2):127-143.

[16] https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-related-brain-damage-what-is-it

[17] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537204/#:~:text=With%20prolonged%20thiamine%20deficiency%2C%20patients,double%20vision%2C%20and%20memory%20loss.

[18] https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-related-brain-damage-what-is-it

[19] https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-related-brain-damage-what-is-it

[20] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/alcohol-and-brain-overview

[21] https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/arbd-the-road-to-recovery

[22] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-b1/

[23] https://www.headway.org.uk/about-brain-injury/individuals/brain-injury-and-me/how-to-manage-memory-problems-after-brain-injury/

[24] https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/atod/alcohol

[25] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder#:~:text=Alcohol%20use%20disorder%20(AUD)%20is,%2C%20occupational%2C%20or%20health%20consequences

 

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