Alcohol and Memory Loss
Alcohol can affect brain function and memory.1 While the exact ways alcohol affects brain chemistry can be complex, heavy alcohol use can have negative short-term and long-term health outcomes regarding one’s memory. When too much is consumed, alcohol can impair short-term memory and lead to alcohol-induced blackouts, creating gaps in a person’s memory while they are under the influence.1 Long-term, heavy drinking can cause long-term memory loss.1 Understanding how alcohol can cause memory loss and what treatment options are available for alcohol misuse and addiction can be vital in making healthy life choices.
Why Does Alcohol Cause Memory Loss
There is a well-established connection between alcohol and memory impairments.2 One example of this link involves the phenomenon of blackouts—or problems with memory spanning the duration of the drinking episode in question.2,3 Anyone, regardless of age and duration of drinking, may experience alcohol-induced blackouts.3 Blacking out from alcohol may occur when a person drinks enough to block the process of memory transfer from short-term to long-term storage in the area of the brain called the hippocampus.3 The hippocampus is essential for memory consolidation and processing.4
The hippocampus registers, stores, and retrieves information.4 As blood alcohol levels rise with drinking, it can interfere with the transfer of information from short-term memory to long-term storage, causing a failure to recall events that took place while drinking.2 When under the influence, people may register information, but the information may not be stored and may then be difficult or even impossible to retrieve.2 This may explain why a person cannot remember anything after drinking.
The best way to prevent memory loss when drinking may be to avoid drinking large amounts of alcohol, drinking on an empty stomach, and consuming alcohol rapidly, but there is no guaranteed way to ensure avoidance of alcohol-induced memory loss outside of complete abstinence.2
Symptoms of Alcohol Memory Loss
The extent to which someone experiences alcohol-induced memory loss can vary from person to person, but some of the symptoms may include:2
- Being unable to recall events that occurred while drinking.
- Difficulty remembering conversations had when under the influence.
- Experiencing gaps in memory or recalling only some events and not others.
Short-Term and Long-Term Alcohol Memory Loss
Memory loss may manifest in two ways: short-term and long-term. Short-term memory loss is what may occur when drinking, as alcohol may interfere with the brain’s ability to store memories made during a period of acute intoxication.2 Long-term memory loss, on the other hand, may be more likely to develop as a result of chronic, heavy drinking.5
Short-Term Memory Loss
Can alcohol impair short-term memory? Yes, as previously mentioned, alcohol misuse can cause a type of short-term memory loss called blackouts.2 There are two types of alcohol-related blackouts.3 The more common type is considered a “fragmentary blackout” because it is an experience of memory that contains missing fragments or spotty recollection.3 A person may remember parts of the time that passed while drinking but may not be able to recall all of what took place.3
The second type of blackout is called “en bloc.”3 During an en bloc blackout, a person experiences total loss of memory that can span for several hours.3
It may be possible to regain memory after drinking if the blackout was fragmentary. 2 The memory fragments lost in a partial blackout may be retrievable with some reminders of the events that took place during the blackout. 2 However in total blackouts, lost memories of events are unlikely to be recovered.3
Long-Term Memory Loss
Sustained alcohol misuse over extended periods of time can also result in longer-term memory problems.5 While the causative role may not be fully understood, there is a connection between alcohol misuse and certain types of progressive cognitive decline or dementia.5 Dementia is a progressive brain disorder characterized by a set of symptoms that can include:6
- Loss of memory.
- Difficulty completing daily tasks.
- Language difficulties.
- Mood changes.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, drinking less alcohol may help protect against the risk of Alzheimer’s and related dementias.7
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is also linked to chronic alcohol misuse.8 WK syndrome involves the dual-occurrence of two brain disorders: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.8 Both disorders may result from a combination of cumulative alcohol-related brain toxicity and vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency.9
Vitamin B1 or thiamine is essential for the growth, development, and overall function of the body’s cells.10 Chronic drinking is sometimes associated with poor overall nutrition and decreased gut absorption of thiamine from food, ultimately giving rise to a B1 deficiency.8 Without treatment, WK can progress to cause permanent memory loss as well as become life-threatening.8
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
The link between alcohol and memory loss is just one of many concerns that may arise from alcohol misuse. Drinking can lead to alcohol addiction and may require treatment.5 Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition that can benefit from professional treatment.11 Luckily, evidence-based addiction treatment programs can provide positive health outcomes for those struggling with alcohol use disorder.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol misuse or addiction, it’s important to know that there is help available. Finding alcohol rehab programs doesn’t have to be a difficult process. Those considering treatment may want to reach out to their doctor or a trusted medical professional. They may be able to help determine one’s medical needs or refer them to a suitable addiction treatment center. Additionally, one may consider visiting Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) treatment locator to find resources in their area.
Addiction helplines can also be a powerful resources for those seeking alcohol addiction treatment. American Addiction Centers (AAC) owns and operates one such addiction helpline. Our 24/7 phone line can connect you to compassionate admissions navigators who can help answer your questions about alcohol and memory loss, help direct you to suitable treatment centers, and help to verify your insurance benefits. Don’t delay, reach out to us today at to get started.
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