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Can Alcohol Cause Memory Loss

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What Is Alcohol Related Dementia

Alcohol & Substance Abuse : Does Alcohol Cause Memory Loss?

Alcohol related dementia, as the name suggests, is a form of dementia related to the excessive drinking of alcohol. This affects memory, learning and other mental functions. Korsakoffs syndrome and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are particular forms of alcohol related brain injury which may be related to alcohol related dementia.

Treatment Of Alcohol And Memory Loss

There isnt much anyone can do to recall events from a night of heavy drinking. However, there are treatments to improve the effects of alcohol on memory.

  • Thiamine supplements can help alleviate symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is a result of thiamine deficiency.
  • Certain medications such as memantine, used in Alzheimers treatment, may improve memory loss from alcoholism.
  • Attending alcohol use disorder treatment can reverse the effects of alcohol on memory. Stopping alcohol consumption can cause mild to severe withdrawal symptoms. So, for safety reasons, alcohol use disorder should always be treated in a professional setting.

What Are The Symptoms

This can vary from person to person, but generally symptoms will include:

  • Impaired ability to learn things
  • Personality changes
  • Problems with memory
  • Difficulty with clear and logical thinking on tasks which require planning, organising, common sense judgement and social skills
  • Problems with balance

Generally skills learned earlier in life and old habits such as language and gestures tend to be relatively unaffected.

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Alcohol And Memory Loss Long

While alcohol slows the hippocampus, heavy drinking causes long-term damage. For example, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a severe cognitive disorder, is related directly to the effects of alcohol on memory. It develops because of a thiamine deficiency related to drinking alcohol.

Chronic misuse of alcohol stops the brain and the body from absorbing this much-needed vitamin. Without proper treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can lead to dementia and may even be fatal.

Long-term effects of chronic alcohol misuse include:

  • Nerve damage
  • Poor balance and coordination

What Causes Alcohol Related Brain Damage

Drinking Can Cause Memory Loss Flask

Alcohol related brain damage is caused by drinking alcohol excessively over a prolonged period of time. It can be caused by a combination of reasons including vitamin B1 deficiency , the toxic effects of alcohol on nerve cells, head injury and blood vessel damage. There are three main types of alcohol related brain damage Wernickes encephalopathy, Korsakoffs syndrome and alcoholic dementia. Both Wernickes and Korsakoffs can occur singularly or in combination when it is called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Wernickes encephalopathy often has a sudden onset and is characterised by movement and balance problems, loss of coordination, confusion, disorientation and abnormal eye movements.

Korsakoffs syndrome occurs more gradually and the symptoms are usually attention and concentration problems, gaps in memory which are usually filled inaccurately and a difficulty learning new information.

Alcoholic dementia is characterised by a deteriorating ability in planning, decision making and assessment of risk. There tends to be a change in personality, reduced impulse and emotional control which may lead to conflict and socially inappropriate behaviour. In addition there are problems with attention, concentration and memory.

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The Impact Of Alcohol

Overall, alcohol is linked to over 200 diseases, conditions, and injuries. In 2010, alcohol abuse was responsible for 2.8% of all deaths in the US. While it can take years of heavy drinking for diseases like alcohol-related brain damage to appear, negative effects on the brain materialize after only a few drinks.

As an individual consumes alcohol, he or she will begin to feel the depressant effects it has on the brain. As the bodys control center, the impairing effects of alcohol quickly impede the normal function of areas all over the body. Short-term symptoms indicating reduced brain function include difficulty walking, blurred vision, slowed reaction time, and compromised memory. Heavy drinking and binge drinking can result in permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.

Can Alcoholic Amnesia Be Reversed

Individuals who experience blackouts based on binge drinking are generally unable to recover those memories, but they do not usually have other memory issues afterward. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the long-term damage of alcoholic amnestic disorders. The National Library of Medicine explains that the brain damage caused by thiamine deficiency resulting from alcohol abuse is generally permanent damage to those areas of the brain. In other words, the memories lost will not return, and the inability to learn or form new memories will not diminish. According to a study from Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 80 percent of people who are diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome end up with a permanent memory disorder.

Permanent memory loss and damage to memory and learning centers is a life-changing situation. People who struggle with this condition are likely to need ongoing care to function. Many people who develop this condition are not diagnosed until it has reached a dangerous point. Death can result from this disorder over time. Because of the severity of this conditions effect on quality of life and long-term health, it is important to recognize the risks of this disorder and stop drinking alcohol if the risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is high.

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How Alcohol Protects Memory Later In Life

It seems its never too late to reap the benefits of alcohol for a healthier brain.

Moderate drinking throughout adulthood protects your brain from a cognitive downturn later in life.

An analysis of 143 studies including more than 365,000 participants established that moderate drinkers were 23% less likely to develop signs of memory problems, dementia, or Alzheimers disease.


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While red wine was slightly more beneficial than beer or spirits, most studies did not distinguish between types of alcohol.

Seniors aged 75 and older by up to 60% and Alzheimers by over 40% by continuing to drink moderately.

Even seniors diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment , an intermediate stage of mental decline before dementia, are less likely to develop dementia if they drink moderately.

Who Gets Alcohol Related Dementia

Alcoholism & Memory Loss

Anyone who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol over a period of years may develop these conditions, but most do not. It is not known why some very heavy drinkers develop dementia or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome while others do not. Diet and other lifestyle factors may play a role.

These conditions most commonly affect men over the age of 45 with a long history of alcohol abuse, though men and women of any age can be affected. The risk clearly increases for anyone who drinks high levels of alcohol on a regular basis for a long time.

The National Health & Medical Research Council of Australia recommends that to reduce the risk of all health problems related to alcohol, adults should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day. This limit applies to both men and women.

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Communicating Effectively With A Person With Arbi

  • reminding them of the conversation topic
  • redirecting the conversation by repeating a question
  • using a pencil and paper to focus discussion
  • using concrete and familiar terms
  • breaking down information into small important points
  • slowing down when you talk
  • focusing discussion on one topic at a time.
  • Ask for instructions or information to be repeated.
  • Rephrase instructions in their own words and check that they have understood properly.
  • When introduced to someone, immediately repeat the persons name and use it as much as possible.

Long Term Effects Of Chronic Alcoholism

The unfortunate but common outcome of long term heavy-excessive alcohol use is WernickeKorsakoff Syndrome .

    Symptoms of WKS include: Inability to form new memories Hallucinations, confusion, delirium Permanent loss of balance, loss of motor control

Many symptoms of WKS are permanent. The best way to avoid alcohol induced WKS is to understand the long term negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption.

Prolonged alcoholism also raises the risk of hepatic encephalopathy, a condition brought about by liver dysfunction .

Bottom line: treat alcohol like a powerful drug. A very moderate amount can improve cardiovascular and cognitive health, but it can quickly become dangerous when used excessively.

Worried about the memory health of someone close to you?

Try the Memory Loss Checklist to determine the probability of serious memory impairment.

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Will My Memory Improve If I Stop Drinking

Yes, your memory will improve if you stop drinking alcohol. Often its not something that will occur overnight. Just as the damage did not occur after one night of drinking alcohol one night of not drinking will not repair it. It can take roughly six months to a year before you see benefits and improvements in your memory.

Can Alcohol Cause Dementia

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People who do not binge drink or become dependent on alcohol do not need to worry about an alcohol-dementia link, says Nikola Djordjevic, MD. “Alcohol consumption in moderate amounts has not been found to cause dementia or any other cognitive impairments. However, excessive use and abuse in old age have been associated with changes in brain structure that increase the risk of Alzheimerâs and variants of dementia,” he explains.

A 2018 study found that heavy drinking increased the risk of dementia by about three times. Alcoholism may increase the risk of certain medical conditions that damage the cardiovascular system, including high blood pressure. Research increasingly links both heart disease and heart disease risk factors to an elevated risk of developing dementia.

Alcoholism may also cause a rare type of dementia called Korsakoff syndrome, according to The Alzheimer’s Association. This dementia appears when a person is deficient in thiamine/vitamin B1, a deficiency that is more prevalent among chronic alcoholics.

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How Can Alcohol Related Brain Damage Be Prevented

  • stick within low risk drinking guidelines of no more than 14 units per week
  • spread alcohol intake over three or more days
  • have alcohol free days
  • increase physical and mental activity
  • have a healthy balanced diet
  • avoid smoking
  • manage stress, depression and anxiety symptoms by finding alternative methods of coping than alcohol use
  • keeping weight, cholesterol and blood pressure in check

Content: Alcohol Memory And The Hippocampus

Learning and memory are crucial events during adolescence, when the brain is maturing both physically and functionally. Thus, it is not surprising that cognitive processes are exquisitely sensitive to the effects of chemicals such as alcohol. Among the most serious problems is the disruption of memory, or the ability to recall information that was previously learned. When a person drinks alcohol, he can have a blackout. A blackout can involve a small memory disruption, like forgetting someones name, or it can be more seriousthe person might not be able to remember key details of an event that happened while drinking. An inability to remember the entire event is common when a person drinks 5 or more drinks in a single sitting .

Learn more about the formation of memory.

In order to affect cognitive functions such as learning and memory alcohol must first enter the brain. Due to its small size alcohol in the blood can passively diffuse into the brain. The ability of alcohol to cause short term memory problems and blackouts is due to its effects on an area of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a structure that is vital to learning and the formation of memory.

Learn more about the passive diffusion of alcohol through the blood brain barrier.

Review the basics of neuron structure.

Figure 3.2 Originally named for its resemblance to a seahorse the hippocampus is a small curved structure located within the temporal lobes of the brain

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Symptoms Of Memory Blackouts

There are no known symptoms of blackouts, except that the person experiencing them will be showing the same symptoms of overdrinking. Slurred speech, impaired judgment, and impaired coordination may all be a warning sign that someone is experiencing a memory blackout. Many that drink may think that experiencing blackouts are a laughing matter, but, they are not. Studies show that drinking enough to raise the blood alcohol content level high enough to induce memory blackouts can lead to both short and long-term physical, mental, and emotional consequences. Most terrifying, those that experience frequent memory lapses as a result of abusing alcohol may even experience brain shrinkage.

Additionally, those that experience memory blackouts commonly from excessive drinking are more likely to participate in behaviors that could lead to other consequences. Drunk driving, unprotected sexual activity, crime, and violence are to be expected of those that have a blood alcohol content level high enough to induce memory lapse. Also, those that commonly experience memory blackouts from alcohol are at a higher risk of using other drugs and developing other addictions.

There Are Several Factors That Determine How Much Alcohol Will Ultimately Damage Your Brain:

Real Question: Can Alcohol Consumption Cause Brain Damage?
  • How much alcohol a person consumes as well as how often
  • When a person started drinking, and how much they continue to do so
  • Demographic factors like age, education, gender, genetics, and family life
  • If he or she had prenatal exposure to alcohol
  • Overall health conditions

Over time, heavy alcohol abuse kills brain cells, can decrease the effectiveness of neurotransmitters, and causes nutritional deficiencies that further damage regular functioning.

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How Does Drinking Affect Your Memory

As mentioned, memory loss and alcohol use disorder are strongly interconnected with one another. There are two types of memoryretrospective and prospective. Retrospective memory is long-term , whereas prospective is short-term .

Consuming large amounts of alcohol tends to negatively impact your prospective memory more often than your retrospective memory as it actively impairs your memory during the period of intoxication. This is known as blacking out and its the reason that many people report having limited or no memory of the events that took place during a binge-drinking session.

The hippocampus is an integral structure in the brain thats primarily responsible for interpreting and storing new memories so that they can easily transition into long-term memories. Constant heavy consumption of alcohol can actively damage this important structure, preventing it from functioning normally.

If youre wondering what causes you to lose your memory when drinking alcohol and eradicates your inhibitions, its the fact that alcohol blocks certain parts of your brain from performing their duties.

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What Are The Symptoms Of Alcohol

Symptoms include difficulties with:

  • staying focused on a task without becoming distracted
  • solving problems, planning and organising
  • setting goals, making judgements and making decisions
  • being motivated to do tasks or activities controlling their emotions they may become irritable or have outbursts
  • understanding how other people are thinking or feeling .

The symptoms of alcohol-related dementia can change a lot from person to person. If a person with the condition has a brain scan, it will often show that some areas of the brain have shrunk much more than others. Alcohol particularly affects the frontal lobes of the brain.

Alcohol-related dementia and memory problems

A person with alcohol-related dementia may also have problems with their memory. They might not be able to understand new information for example, they may quickly forget the details of a conversation. They may also not be able to recall knowledge and events, such as where they lived previously or places where they have been on holiday.

Alcohol-related dementia and balance

A person with alcohol-related dementia may be unsteady on their feet and more likely to fall over even when they are sober. This is because alcohol damages the part of the brain that controls balance, co-ordination and posture.

Alcohol-related dementia and mood

Need more information on mood and behaviour?

Read our advice on supporting a person with dementia who has depression, anxiety or apathy.

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What Is A Blackout

The NIAAA defines alcohol-related blackouts as gaps in a persons memory during times of intoxication. These gaps happen because, at certain intoxication levels, alcohol blocks the transfer of memories to an area of the brain called the hippocampus.

There are two types of blackouts. With a partial blackout, things like peoples names and other minor details cannot be recalled. A complete blackout is the inability to recall batches of time. Blacking out is extremely dangerous and increases the risk of injury and death.

Inadequate Ability To Absorb Nutrients

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The current research and understanding of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and memory damage due to alcohol has to do with how alcohol affects the individuals ability to absorb nutrients. Specifically, the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome in general is the result of inadequate levels of thiamine, or B1, as explained by the National Library of Medicine. This deficiency can be caused by alcohol interrupting the bodys ability to absorb thiamine from the diet, leading to inadequate levels of the vitamin in the body.

While the relationship between thiamine and memory isnt fully understood, what is apparent is that a deficiency in this essential vitamin interrupts the brains ability to recall old memories or create new ones.

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How Alcohol Affects Memory

Memory is divided is into retrospective and prospective or working memory. Retrospective memory is remembering all events and episodes that have happened in our lifetime.

Alcohol tends to affect short-term or prospective memory more often. Prospective memory is day-to-day brain function, specifically, remembering to complete daily activities.

Anyone can forget things from time to time, however, people who consume heavy amounts of alcohol have a tendency to make more memory mistakes than those who do not drink at all or those who do not drink on a regular basis. These mistakes can include recalling whether they had completed a task, such as locking the car or switching off the stove or forgetting where they put things.

Other examples of impairment of day-to-day memory can include:

  • Forgetting to send your daughter her birthday card on time
  • Forgetting what you’re about to say in the middle of a sentence
  • Forgetting where regularly used household items are kept
  • Telling a friend a story you have already told them

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