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Alcohol and Health

Does Alcohol Cause Memory Loss?

June 1, 2024
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 1, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 1, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 1, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
June 1, 2024
21 min read

Remembering the Risks: Alcohol’s Impact on Memory Loss

  • Excessive drinking can often cause “blackouts” or short-term memory loss, which can be brushed off as an accepted side effect. Despite its seemingly short-term effects, this can also impact our long-term memory.
  • We can prevent long-term or permanent effects on our memory by avoiding excessive drinking or quitting alcohol altogether. 
  • Reframe can help us get a clearer picture of all the negative consequences of alcohol and encourage us to make informed drinking decisions!

Have you woken up one morning after a night out and can’t seem to piece together the events of the night before? Alcohol is to blame. But did you know that alcohol can also have long-term effects on our memory? 

Memory loss is often brushed off as a symptom of old age, but turns out, alcohol plays a major role. To prevent or reduce memory loss before it’s too late, let’s get a better understanding of how our memory works and how alcohol can put a damper on it. 

Recalling How Our Memory Works

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Ever wonder why we may not remember exactly what we ate a year ago? This is because it’s not exactly important information. Our brain has different stages of memory that help to store information based on how important or how much exposure we get. The four main stages of memory include:

  • Sensory memory. Sensory memory is typically the first step in our memory process in which we register sensory information. It only lasts about 1 second or less and helps to piece together sensory experiences that may move on into other stages of our memory.
  • Short-term memory. This stage lasts about 30 seconds and is only able to hold on to limited pieces of information. An example of our short-term memory in action is remembering the characters on a license plate before getting a chance to jot them down. 
  • Working memory. Working memory is similar to short-term memory but is used for cognitive tasks. For example, we may hold an equation in our working memory to be able to solve a math problem. 
  • Long-term memory. Long-term memory is broken down into two categories, explicit and implicit. Explicit memories are conscious memories such as a family member’s birthday or general knowledge about the world. Implicit memories are ones we don’t consciously think about and can influence behavior and actions. These can include daily functions such as walking or habits that we’ve developed over time. 

Information that is stored in our long-term memory goes through three main processes:

  • Encoding. The first step in creating a memory is encoding. This consists of our brain processing the information and storing it in our short-term memory.
  • Consolidation. In this step, information that our brain deems important is processed and stored in our long-term memory.
  • Retrieval. Retrieval is the action of recalling or accessing stored information. 

Now that we have a better understanding of how our memory works and the different types of memory, let’s see where alcohol fits in.

How Does Alcohol Affect Memory?

Alcohol slows down messaging in our brain and can inhibit different stages of our memory — causing memory loss. This can cause short-term effects on our memory, and excessive drinking can even cause permanent effects. Let’s get a clearer picture of this impact on our memory. 

Alcohol’s Immediate Effects on Our Memory

Short-term memory loss from alcohol is commonly referred to as a “blackout”. It can range from smaller memories such as forgetting where we parked the car to bigger chunks of memory such as not being able to recall what happened on our night out. 

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means that it slows down messaging in our brain. More specifically, it impacts nerve communication within our hippocampus, which is the part of our brain that helps us form and maintain our memories. Due to this damper in our brain signaling, alcohol can cause two main types of short-term memory loss:

  • En bloc. En bloc or total amnesia is short-term memory loss that typically spans several hours. It occurs when short-term memories aren’t transferred to long-term memories and are not able to be recalled.
  • Fragmentary. This memory loss is characterized by having spotty memories. We may remember some events but not others. Fragmentary memory loss can occur when storage of our long-term memory gets disrupted. We may be able to recall events that occurred when reminded by others.

Losing a night of memories may not seem like a big deal, but prolonged and excessive drinking can have long-term or even permanent effects on our memory, which we’ll get into.

Alcoholism and Memory Loss

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) or “alcoholism” is directly associated with memory loss due to prolonged excessive alcohol use. Prolonged and excessive drinking has long-term effects on our memory through two main methods — changes in our brain structures and thiamine deficiency. 

Research shows that changes in our brain structure can decrease the period that information stays in our short-term memory — causing acute memory loss such as “slipping our mind” or “losing our train of thought”. Changes in the areas of our brain that facilitate our memory can impact our ability to create long-term memories. As we age, it can cause long-term disruptions in the transcription process that can lead to permanent memory loss known as dementia

Excessive drinking can also lead to a thiamine deficiency. This vitamin provides energy to our brain and nerve cells. It can also affect the way our body utilizes thiamine — affecting our memory processes. Thiamine deficiency, like permanent changes to our brain structure, is also linked to an increased risk of dementia. Dementia can range from forgetfulness to interference with daily life functions. More specifically, heavy alcohol use is linked to a specific type of dementia known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome — a severe neurological disorder that may not be able to be reversed once it reaches a certain stage

While we know that alcohol affects the part of the brain that primarily affects our memory, it also impacts other parts of the brain that support our memory and apply our memories. Long-term impacts to our memory not only cause memory loss, but can also affect our judgment and behavior. 

Now that we know the significant impact that alcohol can have on our memory, what’s a safe amount?

How Much Alcohol Will Impair Our Memory?

While a black-and-white answer would surely help with knowing how much we can drink safely, many different factors can influence this number. There’s no specific amount that is deemed “safe” that won’t have an impact on our memory. 

To give us a general idea, we can use alcohol-induced blackouts which are characterized by short-term memory loss. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol-induced blackouts typically occur when our blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches around 0.16%. This is equivalent to about 7-8 drinks in an hour (but may depend on other factors that we’ll get into). 

Long-term effects from alcohol can be even more difficult to estimate, as they occur over a period of time. Excessive drinking which includes binge drinking and heavy drinking is associated with these long-term effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is having 4-5 drinks on one occasion and heavy drinking refers to having roughly 8 or more drinks in a week for women and 15 for men. A study found that high alcohol consumption — which they measure as over 14 standard drinks per week — is undoubtedly linked to an increased risk of dementia and alcohol-related memory deficits. But is that all there is to it? Aside from the amount of alcohol, what else can influence alcohol-related memory loss?

Other Factors That Influence Alcohol and Memory Loss

Aside from the amount of alcohol we consume, other factors can influence memory loss. Our memory is impacted by BAC levels which can vary depending on a number of different factors. These additional factors may include the following:

  • Sex. Gender differences can affect BAC, which consequently affects how alcohol impairs our memory. Due to biological differences between genders, females tend to have a higher BAC when consuming the same amount of alcohol as males — increasing the risk of memory loss.
  • Weight. Higher weight typically means greater fluid volume. A higher concentration of water in our body means that the concentration of alcohol in our blood is more diluted.
  • Age. Age is a significant factor when it comes to memory. Old age is associated with memory loss unrelated to alcohol. Excessive drinking at an older age can compound the risk of memory loss. On the opposite side of the spectrum, underage drinking can impact our brain development — also heightening the risk of short-term and long-term impairments to our memory.
  • Timeframe. The timeframe in which we drink can also affect memory loss. This is more visible with short-term memory loss. When we drink excessively in a short timeframe, our BAC rises quickly, as our body is not able to metabolize the alcohol as quickly as we’re consuming it. Binge drinking can easily lead to “blacking out”.
  • Tolerance. Individual tolerances to alcohol can affect how much alcohol it may take to cause short-term memory loss. A higher tolerance may mean a certain amount of alcohol can cause a “blackout” in others but won’t affect us the same way — however this doesn’t mean that the amount of alcohol we’re drinking doesn’t still have long-term effects on our memory.
  • Overall health. Different facets of our health are interconnected. Poor overall health can mean that our cells and organs aren’t functioning optimally, which could affect the way alcohol affects our body and impairs our memory. 

As we can see, many factors affect alcohol-related memory loss. The level of impairment and specific experiences of memory loss can also vary. Let’s say we do experience memory loss from drinking. Can it be treated?

Treating Memory Loss From Drinking

Memory loss can be treated up to a certain point, which is why early intervention is so important. Some ways that memory loss from drinking can be treated include the following options:

  • Thiamine supplementation. Memory conditions such as dementia are linked to thiamine deficiency. Supplementation in conjunction with other treatments can help to reverse memory loss by boosting thiamine.
  • Treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD). By treating the cause of alcohol-related memory loss, treatment for AUD can prevent further damage to our memory and begin to reverse damage to the brain structures that control our memory.
  • Medically-assisted treatment. In certain cases, medication may be prescribed to supplement other treatments. For example, memantine is a common prescription medication used for memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

We may be able to reverse long-term memory loss through these treatment options, but is there a way we can regain our memories?

How To Regain Memory After Drinking Too Much 

There’s no surefire way to regain our memories after drinking too much. However, we can implement the following tips to give ourselves the best chance:

  • Stop drinking. Stopping immediately can help prevent further impairments to our memory. It also allows our body time to process alcohol more efficiently, which helps us return to normal memory processing.
  • Stay hydrated. We won’t be able to hydrate our way out of memory loss but it helps our body metabolize and eliminate the alcohol in our body.
  • Take supplements. Supplements such as B vitamins and thiamine are essential for optimal brain function. It can’t guarantee that we’ll regain our memories, but it can aid in returning to normal brain function after the depletion of essential vitamins and nutrients from drinking. Another trending supplement is lion’s mane mushroom. Studies support the benefits of lion’s mane on the brain and memory, although further research is needed.
  • Seek treatment. If we’re concerned about our memory or our drinking habits, we can explore professional treatment options that can meet us where we are. This helps prevent further damage to our memory. 

Short-term memory loss may be regained partially if we have fragmented memory loss. However, long-term memory loss can sometimes be permanent — highlighting the importance of prevention.

Preventing Alcohol-Related Memory Loss

How To Prevent Memory Loss When Drinking

The only foolproof method to prevent memory loss from drinking is to completely eliminate the risk by quitting alcohol. However, the following mindful drinking practices can help minimize the risk of alcohol-related memory loss:

  • Set limits. Memory loss is most clearly associated with excessive drinking. Sticking to moderate consumption guidelines or setting personal limits helps minimize the damage that alcohol has on our memory.
  • Track consumption. It can be easy to forget how many drinks we have or how often we’re drinking. Tracking our consumption can help us stick to moderate drinking guidelines and help us determine if our habits are becoming unhealthy.
  • Have accountability. Sometimes setting limits for ourselves isn’t always foolproof, especially when peer pressure may be at play. Having an accountability partner can help us stay on track. 
  • Seek support. Support is an integral aspect of re-developing a healthy relationship with alcohol. Developing a support network can help us stay on the right track and prevent alcohol-related memory loss.

Prevention is key when it comes to memory loss. Certain stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are not able to be reversed, so let’s implement these mindful drinking practices to keep our memory sharp!

Remembering the Main Point

Alcohol and memory loss are heavily interconnected — acutely and in the long term. While one night of blacking out may not seem like a big deal at the moment (although it can be extremely dangerous), excessive drinking over time can lead to permanent memory loss. The more severe stages of alcohol-related memory loss can be permanent, but practicing moderate alcohol consumption will help prevent this from happening, and quitting altogether will work wonders in maintaining our memory. Don’t forget (no pun intended) that Reframe is here to help you quit or cut back so you can keep those memories strong!

Summary FAQs

1. Can alcohol cause memory loss?

Yes. Alcohol can cause short-term memory loss and prolonged exposure can have lasting effects on our memory.

2. Will drinking cause long-term effects on my memory?

Yes. Prolonged and excessive exposure to alcohol can cause memory loss and potentially lead to dementia.

3. Can I reverse memory loss from drinking?

Yes. The best way to reverse memory loss from alcohol is to stop drinking, although supplements such as thiamine are also beneficial as they help boost brain function.

4. How do I regain my memories after blacking out?

There’s no surefire method to regain our memories after blacking out. Sometimes we may regain partial memories, but this depends on a number of different factors such as our age, how long we’ve been drinking, and how much we’ve been drinking.

5. How can I prevent memory loss when drinking? 

Quitting or cutting back on alcohol is the most effective way to prevent memory loss from drinking. If you do decide to drink, sticking to small amounts is best.

Learn About the Harms of Excessive Drinking on the Reframe App!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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