If you’ve been abusing alcohol regularly and you’re feeling more forgetful, foggy, or confused, it’s probably not a coincidence. Alcohol abuse is linked to both temporary and permanent memory loss. Temporary memory loss is most likely after heavy drinking or binge drinking. This type of memory loss is usually not serious and may resolve on its own. But if you’re a heavy drinker or binge drink frequently, you’re at risk for long-term problems with memory. These problems may reverse with treatment, but in some cases, they can lead to permanent brain damage.
Depending on your drinking patterns, alcohol can lead to short-term and long-term memory loss. Here are some ways alcohol and memory loss are linked:
Short-term effects of memory loss are most likely to occur when you’re intoxicated. You may have trouble remembering details of what you did while drinking. This can happen to social drinkers and people with alcohol addictions.
Some research finds that people who have been drinking are more likely to forget words they have just learned. The research also indicates that people who are intoxicated are more likely to forget information they have just heard. This research did not directly compare the memory of people who had been drinking with the memory of people who had not been drinking. It’s possible that other factors, like sleep deprivation or stress, could affect memory problems in these studies.
Alcoholism and memory loss are linked. Permanent memory loss is more likely to happen if you drink heavily over a long period of time. Heavy drinkers are at risk for developing dementia, which is a condition that leads to a permanent decline in cognitive function. Heavy drinkers are more likely to experience issues with memory and thinking than light drinkers or non-drinkers. One study found that people who drank heavily were more likely to develop dementia later in life. Another study found that heavy drinkers were more likely to perform worse on tests of memory and executive function.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a type of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) that can result from chronic alcohol abuse. Korsakoff syndrome used to be considered two separate conditions. Now it’s generally considered one disorder with two different phases. Wernicke’s encephalopathy usually happens first, followed by Korsakoff’s psychosis.
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy: This is a condition that results in brain damage and loss of muscle coordination. It’s caused by a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1).
- Korsakoff’s psychosis: This is a condition that causes memory loss and confabulation (making up stories to fill in the gaps in your memory).
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be reversed if it’s treated early. If it’s not treated, it can lead to permanent damage.
Why Does Alcohol Cause Memory Loss?
Alcohol addiction may cause memory loss by affecting the way memories are stored in your brain.
- Alcohol misuse may reduce your brain’s ability to form new memories. In some cases, people who drink heavily experience blackouts. During these, they cannot remember what has happened. Blackouts can be particularly harmful to the brain and put you at increased risk for long-term memory problems.
- Alcohol affects short-term memory by slowing down the communication between nerves in your brain. The hippocampus helps you form and remember memories. When nerve activity slows down, it can cause problems with short-term memory.
- Drinks that contain alcohol disrupt the way the brain transmits information from short-term memory to long-term storage. The memory gets sidetracked on its way to long-term storage and never gets there. You are then unable to recall certain happenings and facts.
- Glutamate is one of the brain’s chemical systems, and it’s particularly vulnerable to even small amounts of alcohol. Glutamate has several functions in the brain, including memory and possibly contributing to what causes some people to temporarily “black out” or lose much of their recollection during a night of heavy drinking.
In addition to alcohol, there are other substances that can cause memory loss. These include:
- Marijuana: Marijuana use can lead to short-term memory loss. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, affects the brain’s ability to form memories.
- Cocaine: Cocaine use is linked to memory issues because cocaine interferes with the brain’s ability to form and store memories.
- Ecstasy: Ecstasy use damages nerve cells in the brain that are responsible for forming memories.
- Opioids: Opioids like heroin can cause problems with memory and cognitive function.
- Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative prescribed to treat anxiety or insomnia. They can also cause problems with memory and cognition.
- Anticholinergics: Anticholinergics are a type of medication used to treat a variety of conditions, including allergies, asthma, and urinary incontinence. They can cause problems with memory and thinking.
There is some evidence to suggest that brain-related alcohol effects may be reversible. One study found that people who stopped drinking were more likely to experience improvements in memory and thinking than those who kept drinking. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not all studies have found such improvements. It’s possible that some of the damage caused by alcohol is permanent.
Researchers are learning how to help people who have experienced memory loss recover brain function. Future event simulation (FES) is a memory technique that uses strategies like making linked and indexed lists. FES appears promising in aiding long-term recall for people with events that happened recently or for recurring events happening in the near future.
According to other National Institutes of Health studies, eliminating alcohol over several months to a year may result in brain structure changes that can help the condition. Abstinence can also aid in reversing cognitive deficits like:
In some cases, it may be possible to reverse memory loss. For example, if memory loss is caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency, treatment with vitamin B12 supplements can improve memory. If memory loss is caused by medications, changing or stopping the medication could improve memory. In other cases, such as dementia, memory loss may not be reversible.
There are several signs that you may have memory loss from using alcohol. These include:
- Blackouts: If you drink heavily, you may experience blackouts. Blackouts are periods of time where you cannot remember what happened. This is because alcohol interferes with the brain’s ability to form memories.
- Difficulty concentrating: Alcohol can make it difficult to concentrate and pay attention. This can make it hard to learn new information or remember things you’ve already learned.
- Poor decision-making: People who have memory loss from alcohol may also make poor decisions. This is because alcohol impairs judgment and decision-making skills.
There are a few risks associated with memory loss from alcohol. These include:
- Worsening of existing medical conditions: Memory loss from alcohol can worsen existing medical conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
- Development of new medical conditions: Cognitive problems linked to alcohol can also lead to new medical conditions, such as dementia.
- Social problems: Poor memory formation from alcohol abuse can cause social problems, such as job loss and relationship problems.
Alcohol abuse can damage your memory permanently, but there are treatment options available for people with memory loss from alcohol. These include:
- Medications: Some medications can help treat memory loss from alcohol misuse. These include cholinesterase inhibitors, which are used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
- Counseling: Counseling can help people with cognitive issues from alcohol cope with their condition. It can also lead to lifestyle changes to improve their symptoms.
- Support groups: Support groups can provide social and emotional support for people with mental and spiritual challenges in recovery. They can also offer helpful information and resources.
Thiamine is a vitamin that is essential for proper brain function. A deficiency of thiamine can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Supplementing with thiamine can help to improve symptoms and reduce the risk of further damage to the brain. Thiamine supplements are typically taken by mouth, but they may also be given intravenously (IV) in some cases.
There is no cure for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, but treatment can help improve symptoms and reduce the risk of further brain damage.
Treatment typically includes a combination of:
- Thiamine supplements
- Changes in diet
- Abstaining from alcohol
In some cases, hospitalization may be necessary to ensure thiamine supplements are taken properly and to monitor for complications.
Abstaining from alcohol is an important part of treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Alcohol consumption can make symptoms worse and cause further damage to the brain.
Memantine, which is commonly used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, may also be effective in treating other types of dementia brought on by heavy alcohol consumption.
The best way to prevent cognitive impairments from alcohol is to quit drinking. When you’ve become dependent on alcohol, you’ll likely need to attend a professional alcohol addiction treatment program to get sober and stay sober. Alcohol rehab helps you safely detox from alcohol and then address the reasons why you drink, so you’re less likely use alcohol to cope in the future.
Alcohol addiction treatment may include:
- Alcohol detox with medical supervision to safely eliminate alcohol from your body
- Individual and group therapy to identify what triggers your substance abuse
- Family therapy to help repair relationships with loved ones
- Mental health treatment for co-occurring disorders like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder (may include medications)
- Specialized therapies like EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) that help you heal from underlying issues like trauma that can fuel drug and alcohol abuse.
- Holistic approaches that heal mind, body, and spirit, like yoga, art therapy, mindfulness, nutrition counseling, and spiritual activities.
- Introduction to 12-step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or alternatives like SMART Recovery.
The effects of alcohol can cause long-term damage to your body and your brain health. Don’t wait another day to get the help you need to recover and begin a fulfilling life in sobriety. Footprints to Recovery provides evidence-based treatment that is engaging, respectful, and compassionate. Call us today for a free, confidential consultation.