Alcohol and Memory Loss: Connection, Research, and Treatment (2023)

Whether it’s over one night or several years, heavy alcohol use can lead to lapses in memory. This may include difficulty recalling recent events or even an entire night. It can also lead to permanent memory loss, described as dementia.

Doctors have identified several ways alcohol affects the brain and memory. People who binge drink or have alcohol use disorder (AUD) may experience short- and long-term memory loss.

A 2013 study found that an estimated 78 percent of individuals diagnosed with AUD experience changes to the brain.

Keep reading to learn why alcohol can affect short- and long-term memory and what you can do about it.

Doctors have identified several ways drinking alcohol can affect a person’s memory. These include the following:

Short-term memory

Some people experience what doctors call a blackout when they drink too much alcohol and don’t remember key details.

These situations can range from small, such as where a person put their keys, to large, such as forgetting what happened in night. According to Duke University, the inability to remember anything from a night out usually occurs after a person has had five or more drinks.

Alcohol affects short-term memory by slowing down how nerves communicate with each other in a part of the brain called the hippocampus.

(Video) Effects of Alcohol on the Brain, Animation, Professional version.

The hippocampus plays a significant role in helping people form and maintain memories. When normal nerve activity slows down, short-term memory loss can occur.

Long-term memory loss

Heavy alcohol use doesn’t only slow down the hippocampus, it can damage it. Alcohol can destroy nerve cells. This affects a person’s memory in the short and long term.

In addition, people who drink too much alcohol are often deficient in vitamin B-1, or thiamine. This vitamin is vital to providing energy to brain and nerve cells.

Alcohol use affects how well the body uses thiamine. It can also affect thiamine in the following ways:

  • People who drink heavily may not eat a healthy diet and miss out on key nutrients.
  • Drinking too much alcohol can irritate the stomach lining, which affects how the stomach absorbs nutrients.
  • Heavy alcohol use can cause vomiting, which keeps the stomach and intestines from absorbing nutrients.

Thiamine deficiency can cause dementia, which is progressive and permanent memory loss.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a type of dementia linked to heavy alcohol use. This condition creates gaps in a person’s memory. It’s possible that a person can prevent this syndrome from getting worse, but they usually must stop drinking and enhance their nutrient intake.

Usually, the effects of long-term memory loss are related to drinking 21 or more drinks a week for 4 years or more, according to Massachusetts General Hospital.

Older people

Older individuals are more vulnerable to the short- and long-term effects of alcohol use on their brains.

As a person ages, their brain becomes more sensitive to alcohol. Their metabolism also slows down, so the alcohol stays in their system for longer.

Additionally, many older people also experience a slow degeneration of the cells in the hippocampus. It’s not usually severe enough to cause symptoms of dementia. But when you add the effects of heavy alcohol use, memory loss can be very serious.

In addition to these considerations, older people also tend to take more medications than younger people. These medications can potentially interact with alcohol, which can worsen symptoms.

(Video) What is the Connection Between Alcohol and Memory Loss?

Older people are also more vulnerable to injuries from falls due to changes in eyesight, spatial recognition, and bone health. Alcohol use can increase their risks for falls, as it can affect judgement and perception. A fall can injure them and affect their memory.

Some of alcohol’s effects on memory are apparent — maybe you wake up after a night of drinking and have a bruise you don’t remember getting, or you don’t recall any of the night’s previous events. Some effects are more subtle.

If you can identify with any of the following symptoms, you may be experiencing short-term memory loss from heavy alcohol use:

  • You’ve been told that you talked to someone recently about an event, but you don’t remember having the conversation.
  • You find yourself frequently confused or disoriented about where you are.
  • You have problems paying attention.
  • People often tell you about things you did while drinking that you can’t recall.
  • You’ve gotten in trouble with loved ones or the police when drinking, but you don’t fully remember what you did.

It can be hard to tell if a loved one has a drinking problem. This is especially true if they’re older — you may wonder if their symptoms are related to aging.

The following symptoms may indicate that they have alcohol-related long-term memory loss:

  • They have a symptom called confabulation, in which they make up small stories to fill gaps in their memory. Some people with conditions like WKS may do this.
  • They’re experiencing noticeable personality changes. This may include appearing more withdrawn, frustrated, or even angry.
  • They frequently ask the same question repeatedly and without signs they remember having asked it previously.
  • They have difficulty learning a new skill, such as playing a game. This can signal problems with recent memories.

It’s hard to know what to say to a loved one when you’re worried that their drinking is affecting their health. If you aren’t sure where to begin, consider talking to their healthcare provider or use the resources listed below.


(Video) Memory Loss & Forgetfulness: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments

If you’re having difficulty recalling an event from the night before, there isn’t much you can do to remember it. Sometimes, a smell, saying, or image may flash back in your mind, but you can’t force a memory to return.

However, there are treatments for people whose alcohol use affects their memory and overall functioning. These include:

  • Thiamine supplementation or intravenous (IV) thiamine. According to 2013 research, thiamine supplementation can help alleviate symptoms of WKS, which is caused by a thiamine deficiency.
  • Undergoing treatment for alcohol use disorder. Alcohol withdrawal can cause symptoms that range from mild, such as nausea and vomiting, to severe and life-threatening, such as racing heart, delirium, and very high body temperature. The more times you’ve withdrawn from alcohol, the more at risk you are for life-threatening consequences. You may need treatment at a hospital to safely withdraw.
  • Taking certain medication. Research suggests that memantine, which is used for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, may show promise in treating other types of dementia, such as alcohol-associated dementia.

You can avoid short-term memory loss by removing alcohol from the equation. Avoiding alcohol can help prevent dementia from worsening.

It’s important to note that most researchers and healthcare providers have found that alcohol consumed in moderation — one to two drinks for men and one for women — doesn’t typically affect memory.

A large-scale study that followed participants for 27 years found moderate alcohol consumption — defined as one to two drinks a few days a week — didn’t have an increased risk of dementia.

This research suggests that to protect your memory, drinking in moderation is the best policy (that is, if you choose to drink).

For people who drink daily and heavily, there isn’t always a safe or moderate amount of alcohol consumed.

(Video) Sanjeevani: Memory Loss का कारण और निवारण

If your healthcare provider has advised you to stop drinking entirely, it’s important to follow their advice. They can also recommend a program to help you quit.

Here are some ways to keep alcohol away from your home:

  • Throw away any alcohol in the home, including cough syrups that contain alcohol.
  • Tell friends and family they shouldn’t bring or buy alcohol for you or a loved one.
  • Ask grocery stores or delivery services not to deliver alcohol to your home.

Some people may find that they can drink nonalcoholic wine or beer if they crave the taste of alcohol.

If you or a loved one drink heavily and it’s affecting your memory and overall health, help is available. Here are some places to start:

  • Talk to your primary care doctor. If you drink heavily, you may need medical support for when you decide to stop drinking to prevent potentially severe withdrawal symptoms. Your doctor may suggest admitting you to a hospital or alcohol treatment facility to help.
  • Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) free national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The helpline is available 24 hours a day.
  • Find a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting near you. These meetings are free and have helped thousands of people stay sober.
  • Talk to friends and family members, and tell them if you think you need help. Their support can help get you through.

You should never be ashamed or afraid to ask for help. These steps can save your life.

The bottom line

(Video) Fix Your Short Term Memory Loss – Hippocampus Repair – Dr.Berg

Alcohol consumed in excess can affect memory. If a person uses it heavily long-term, they’re at risk for a number of memory-related health conditions.

If you or a loved one frequently engage in binge drinking or have an addiction to alcohol, talk to your healthcare provider or call the SAMHSA National Helpline.


How do you fix memory loss from alcohol? ›

Lost memories will never return, but the ability to form new memories can be restored. Rehabilitation treatment and therapy will help an alcohol abuser stop drinking and develop a healthier lifestyle that includes complete abstinence from alcohol, a healthy diet and vitamin supplements (including thiamine).

Can alcohol cause permanent memory damage? ›

Chronic alcohol use can lead to permanent brain damage and memory impairments. Alcohol-related dementia is a condition caused by long-term heavy alcohol use. People with this condition experience memory loss and difficulty forming new memories.

Is alcohol induced dementia reversible? ›

At an early stage of the disease, problems may be reduced or reversed if the person abstains from alcohol, improves their diet and replace vitamins especially thiamine and vitamin B1. Thiamine is important to limit some of the toxic effects of alcohol, and is an important supplement for heavy drinkers.

Can your brain recover from the effects of alcohol? ›

Once brain cells die, the effect of the brain damage is permanent. Thankfully, some of the changes in the alcoholic brain are due to cells simply changing size in the brain. Once an alcoholic has stopped drinking, these cells return to their normal volume, showing that some alcohol-related brain damage is reversible.

What age do alcoholics get dementia? ›

People who are diagnosed with ARBD are usually aged between about 40 and 50. This is younger than the age when people usually develop the more common types of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. It is not clear why some people who drink too much alcohol develop ARBD, while others do not.

What is early stage alcoholic dementia? ›

Early Stage Alcohol-Related Dementia

People are generally able to live independently during the early stages of dementia, but subtle memory problems, such as losing items frequently, may occur. People with early-stage dementia may also find it more difficult to make complex decisions and express themselves.

Can memory loss reversed? ›

Sometimes, the problem can be treated, and cognition improves. Other times, the problem is a brain disorder, such as Alzheimer's disease, which cannot be reversed. Finding the cause of the problems is important for determining the best course of action. Once you know the cause, you can make the right treatment plan.

How do I know if I have brain damage from alcohol? ›

The symptoms of this include memory loss, apathy, and confusion about where they are and about the passage of time. A swift diagnosis and early treatment can often reverse these symptoms.

Why do alcoholics have bad memory? ›

Alcohol affects short-term memory by slowing down how nerves communicate with each other in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a significant role in helping people form and maintain memories. When normal nerve activity slows down, short-term memory loss can occur.

What percentage of alcoholics get dementia? ›

Among those drinking >14 units/week, a 7 unit increase in alcohol consumption was associated with a 17% (95% confidence interval 4% to 32%) increase in risk of dementia.

What type of dementia is caused by alcoholism? ›

Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory disorder caused by severe deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B-1). Korsakoff syndrome is most commonly caused by alcohol misuse, but certain other conditions also can cause the syndrome.

Is it common for alcoholics to get dementia? ›

Excessive alcohol consumption over a lengthy time period can lead to brain damage, and may increase your risk of developing dementia. However, drinking alcohol in moderation has not been conclusively linked to an increased dementia risk, nor has it been shown to offer significant protection against developing dementia.

How many years does it take for alcohol to damage your brain? ›

Generally, an individual will develop alcohol-related brain damage after 10 to 20 years of heavy drinking (though some have developed brain damage in less time). Women may develop alcohol-related brain damage in a shorter time span due to body size.

How long does it take for brain cells to regenerate after drinking? ›

It takes at least two weeks for the brain to return to normal after drinking. Therefore, this is when the alcohol recovery timeline begins. It is less able to suppress a desire to drink until the brain has recovered. The reason for this is that alcohol has harmed the brain's cognitive function.

How many years does it take for your brain to shrink from alcohol? ›

The brains of people that age who said they drank three alcohol units a day had reductions in both white and gray matter that looked as if they had added 3.5 years to the ages of their brains.

How do you test for alcoholic dementia? ›

In order to make a diagnosis of alcohol-related 'dementia', a doctor may ask the person to do a paper-based test to check for problems with memory and thinking. The doctor will also do a full physical examination and take a detailed history of the person's symptoms and how they are affecting their life.

What age does alcoholism peak? ›

The study examined how the peak binge drinking prevalence has changed in both men and women over time. Historically, research has shown a consistent pattern of binge drinking behaviors in young adults: an increase from age 18 through the early 20s and then subsiding through the late 20s.

How old do alcoholics live to? ›

People hospitalized with alcohol use disorder have an average life expectancy of 47–53 years (men) and 50–58 years (women) and die 24–28 years earlier than people in the general population.

Does alcohol cause cognitive decline? ›

Brain damage is a common and potentially severe consequence of long-term, heavy alcohol consumption. Even mild-to-moderate drinking can adversely affect cognitive functioning (i.e., mental activities that involve acquiring, storing, retrieving, and using information) (1).

Can alcohol ataxia reversed? ›

Ataxia can stabilise or even improve with stopping alcohol, but worsen in those who continue to drink.

How long does the liver take to recover from alcohol? ›

If you stop drinking alcohol for 2 weeks, your liver should return to normal.

What is the 5 word memory test? ›

Introduction: The five-word test (5WT) is a serial verbal memory test with semantic cuing. It is proposed to rapidly evaluate memory of aging people and has previously shown its sensitivity and its specificity in identifying patients with AD.

What is the 3 word memory test? ›

The Mini-Cog test.

A third test, known as the Mini-Cog, takes 2 to 4 minutes to administer and involves asking patients to recall three words after drawing a picture of a clock. If a patient shows no difficulties recalling the words, it is inferred that he or she does not have dementia.

What is the new memory loss treatment? ›

The drug aducanumab received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2021 for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Can MRI detect brain damage from alcohol? ›

Structural MRI studies of patients with chronic alcoholism are generally consistent with the literature on neuropathology and typically reveal reduced volume of both gray matter and white matter in the cerebral cortex, the folded outer layer of the brain.

What are the first signs of liver damage from alcohol? ›

Generally, symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include abdominal pain and tenderness, dry mouth and increased thirst, fatigue, jaundice (which is yellowing of the skin), loss of appetite, and nausea. Your skin may look abnormally dark or light.

What happens when you drink alcohol everyday? ›

Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including: High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems. Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum.

What are the long term cognitive effects of alcohol? ›

Cognitive effects of alcohol use may include memory loss, problems with learning, dementia, and severely hindered mental functioning in most severe cases. Seeking alcohol addiction treatment is the first step in preventing or reducing the negative effects of alcohol on the brain.

What is considered heavy alcohol use? ›

Heavy drinking: For women, heavy drinking is 8 drinks or more per week. For men, heavy drinking is 15 drinks or more per week.

What happens when a person with dementia drink alcohol? ›

It's not recommended for people with Alzheimer's disease to drink alcohol. Many people with Alzheimer's disease experience changes to their sense of balance. Intoxication can increase their risk of losing their balance and seriously injuring themselves.

Has anyone recovered from dementia? ›

There is currently no "cure" for dementia. In fact, because dementia is caused by different diseases it is unlikely that there will be a single cure for dementia. Research is aimed at finding cures for dementia-causing diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.

What neurological diseases are caused by alcohol? ›

There are a number of neurologic diseases associated with alcohol consumption, including: Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, alcoholic neuropathy, alcohol withdrawal syndrome, alcoholic cerebellar degeneration, alcoholic myopathy and fetal alcohol syndrome.

How do you know if you have brain damage from alcohol? ›

The symptoms of this include memory loss, apathy, and confusion about where they are and about the passage of time. A swift diagnosis and early treatment can often reverse these symptoms.

How long does brain fog last when you stop drinking? ›

A person may think they have damaged their brain or need alcohol in order to think, which can trigger a relapse. Yet symptoms of brain fog usually alleviate within a few days.

Can you recover memories from a blackout? ›

You generally cannot retrieve memories that have not been stored in your long-term memory. If you have had a complete blackout, you will likely not be able to remember anything from the experience.


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