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What is the Connection Between Alcohol and Memory Loss?

By Kelly Ferguson
Updated May 17, 2024
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Alcohol and memory loss have both been the subject of numerous studies, and they appear to be closely related. Abuse of alcohol can lead to several types of memory loss, from minor memory problems to significant brain damage. Studies on alcohol and memory loss have shown that short-term memory damage is one of the most frequent symptoms of alcoholism. Alcohol also increases the risk of dementia, a large symptom of which is memory loss.

Research studying alcohol and memory loss has concluded that alcohol interferes with the functioning of the hippocampus, the memory center in the brain, in a number of ways. When the body breaks down alcohol, the products interfere with cell processes and interrupt communication between the brain cells and the rest of the cells in the body. Additionally, alcohol disrupts the central nervous system and reduces the amount of oxygen the brain receives.

One of the types of memory loss associated with excessive alcohol consumption is a fragmented or fuzzy memory. A person experiencing this effect after a night of drinking will either have a vague memory of the events that occurred during and after drinking or will not remember the events of the night before at all until he or she is reminded. A more serious effect of excessive drinking is called a blackout, or a period of amnesia. A person who has experienced a blackout will experience memory gaps, where he or she has no idea what happened for that period of time, even if reminded.

In addition to making it difficult to remember events surrounding an episode of drinking, repeated abuse of alcohol can actually damage the brain’s ability to form and retrieve other memories. Short-term memory allows a person to retain important information for a short period of time, for instance a person remembering a phone number until he or she has a chance to write it down. According to recent studies concerning alcohol and memory loss, short-term memory may be more severely impacted by alcohol than previously realized.

Sustained alcoholism can eventually lead to dementia. Alcoholism lowers the body’s levels of thiamine, or vitamin B1, which may lead to a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, sometimes also called alcoholic dementia. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is actually a combination of two conditions, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Essentially, this syndrome is alcohol-induced brain damage, which can lead to a number of problems including loss of memory, inability to form new memories, and hallucinations.

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Jul 24, 2013

My aunt is an alcoholism related memory loss. The doctor said it's due to the alcohol and poor diet. Alcoholics don't eat enough and don't get enough vitamins, and that makes things worse too.

By literally45 — On Jul 23, 2013

@burcinc-- That sounds like the blackout side effect mentioned in the article. It can definitely happen, but I think it's more rare than the vague memory that most of us experience after a night partying. It's more likely with heavy and chronic drinking.

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. It's basically toxic for the brain and affects reasoning, memory and use of motor skills. Binge drinking can actually cause brain damage. Some alcoholics develop Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome where they basically lose their short-term memory altogether.

By burcinc — On Jul 23, 2013

I just saw a film where the character is an alcoholic but only begins to drink in the evening. As soon as he starts to drink, his character changes and he does things he normally wouldn't do. When he wakes up sober the next day, he doesn't remember any of the things he did the night before. The same thing happens every day.

Can that really happen? I know that when people are hangover, they may not remember things. But can alcohol cause such systematic memory loss and forgetfulness as soon as some starts drinking?

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