Alcohol, Memory Loss, and Dementia: The Connection Explained - GoodRx (2023)

Key takeaways:

  • Alcohol affects the way memories are stored in your brain, which can make it difficult to remember what occurred while you were drinking.

  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol can lead to blackouts, which are severe memory lapses that happen when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is high.

  • Long-term heavy alcohol use can increase the risk of alcohol-related dementia. This is a serious condition that may be permanent if it’s not properly treated.

Alcohol, Memory Loss, and Dementia: The Connection Explained - GoodRx (1)

Alcohol can have serious effects on a person’s health and well-being. One major effect of alcohol is the risk of memory issues. Alcohol can affect how your brain stores memories while you are intoxicated. Drinking heavily over time can also cause vitamin deficiencies that may lead to dementia.

Read on to learn more about how alcohol affects memory, how to spot the signs of a problem, and whether the effects are reversible.

How does alcohol affect memory?

Alcohol affects many different organs in the body, including the brain. Drinking can affect memory shortly after drinking and after long-term use.

If a person drinks a large amount of alcohol at one time and becomes intoxicated, they may experience a blackout. A blackout occurs when a person drinks so much alcohol that it impacts memory consolidation. Memory consolidation is the transfer of memories from short- to long-term storage.

Alcohol intoxication affects episodic memory. This is the ability to recall events. The person experiences a gap in memory that may last minutes to hours. There are two types of blackouts:

  1. En bloc blackouts are ones where absolutely no short-term memories are transferred to long-term storage. You would not be able to recall any details of what happened while you were drinking, even if your friends try to remind you.

  2. Fragmentary blackouts are ones where a person has some “spotty” memories while drinking but cannot recall the full event. In other words, some but not all short-term memories are transferred to long-term storage. You’d be able to recall details of what happened only after others remind you.

Female people are at higher risk of experiencing blackouts than male people. This is due to the differences in how males and females metabolize — or break down — alcohol.

Blackouts are dangerous. When people black out, they may put themselves in risky situations or have slower reaction times.

How much alcohol does it take to impair memory?

The amount of alcohol that it takes to affect memory depends on the person. Blackouts can happen when a person’s BAC approaches 0.16. This means that 0.16% of the person’s blood volume is alcohol.

The amount of alcohol that it takes to reach a certain BAC varies from person to person. It can depend on someone’s biological sex or their weight. It can also depend on how quickly they consume the alcohol.

Certain factors can increase the chances of a blackout, including:

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What is alcohol-related dementia?

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.

Experts are unsure exactly what causes alcohol-related dementia. But many believe that a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency may play a role. People with alcohol use disorder are at higher risk of a thiamine deficiency. This is because heavy alcohol use affects how your body metabolizes the vitamin.

The amount of alcohol it takes to develop alcohol-related dementia is unknown. Studies have found that consuming 5 to 6 drinks per day may cause some cognitive issues. Drinking 10 or more drinks per day can cause more severe problems.

One group of researchers found that male people who drank 35 standard drinks per week and female people who drank 28 standard drinks per week for at least 5 years were at high risk of alcohol-related dementia.

Symptoms of alcohol-related dementia

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is one type of alcohol-related dementia. Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome include:

  • Confusion

  • Memory loss

  • Difficulty acquiring new memories

  • Visual problems

  • Low blood pressure

  • Low body temperature

  • Tremor

  • Muscle coordination issues

  • Coma

Some scientists believe that there are two stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome:

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  1. The first stage is called Wernicke’s encephalopathy. The primary symptoms are confusion, vision issues, and a lack of muscle coordination. If left untreated, Wernicke’s encephalopathy may develop into Korsakoff syndrome.

  2. The second stage is Korsakoff syndrome, which is a long-term memory disorder.

What is considered heavy drinking?

Heavy drinking increases the risk of brain damage and other health issues. It also increases the chances of developing alcohol use disorder.

Heavy drinking is defined as:

  • 4 or more standard drinks on a given day for male people (or more then 14 standard drinks in a week)

  • 3 or more standard drinks on a given day for female people (or more than 7 standard drinks in a week)

When it comes to a standard drink, the type of alcohol and serving size matters. Different types of alcoholic beverages contain different amounts of alcohol. A standard drink is defined as:

Is memory loss from alcohol reversible?

The long-term effects of alcohol on the brain may be permanent, especially in severe alcohol use disorder (AUD) cases. Wernicke encephalopathy can be reversible if treated with thiamine within the first 48 to 72 hours after symptoms begin. If Wernicke encephalopathy is not treated, it could progress to Korsakoff syndrome, which is not reversible.

You can prevent further damage by not drinking alcohol. Also, getting treatment in the early stages of alcohol-related dementia may help. Some individuals have reported that by abstaining from alcohol, they noticed their memory improving over time.

Experts believe that most people show some improvements after at least 1 year of abstinence. But some people may take longer. Generally, the longer a person stays away from alcohol, the greater the chance that their brain functioning improves.

Researchers are continuing to examine if the brain can actually heal from damage due to alcohol. Using animal models, they guess that new neurons could form, leading to an increase in the brain’s volume.

Is alcohol worse for your memory than cannabis?

Cannabis (often called marijuana) is also known to affect memory. Cannabis contains THC. THC attaches to receptors in areas of the brain that are involved in memory. In the short term, this can cause issues with verbal and working memory.

Verbal memory is the ability to recall anything that you hear or read. And working memory is the ability to hold small amounts of information in your memory and use it to perform cognitive tasks.

The long-term effects of cannabis on memory are still unknown. Experts believe that heavy, long-term cannabis use that starts at a young age may have effects on memory. More research is needed to understand how cannabis affects memory and if it is better or worse than alcohol.

The bottom line

Drinking alcohol, even 1 or 2 drinks, can have an impact on memory. Alcohol affects the ability to form long-term memories. Heavy alcohol use over time can lead to alcohol-related dementia. This can cause memory loss and issues with forming new memories. Not drinking alcohol is the best way to avoid memory problems linked to drinking. However, if you do choose to drink, stick to moderate drinking limits and avoid heavy drinking. Also, get help if you think you might have alcohol use disorder.

(Video) Moving Forward: Normal Memory Loss or Dementia?

If you or someone you know struggles with substance use, help is available. Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to learn about resources in your area.

View All References (14)

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Harvard Health Publishing. (2021). The effects of marijuana on your memory. Harvard Medical School.

Latt, N., et al. (2014). Thiamine in the treatment of Wernicke encephalopathy in patients with alcohol use disorders. Internal Medicine Journal.

Lee, H. et al. (2009). Alcohol-induced blackout. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2019). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome information page.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d). Alcohol and the brain: An overview.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d). Drinking levels defined.

(Video) Is it depression or dementia? | Dr Ruth Loane

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d). What is a standard drink?

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain. Alcohol Alert.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Interrupted memories: Alcohol-induced blackouts.

Office of Substance Use Programs Education & Resources. (n.d.). What is BAC? Stanford University.

Ridley, N. J. et al. (2013). Alcohol-related dementia: An update of the evidence. Alzheimer's Research & Therapy.

Schoeler, T., et al. (2013). The effect of cannabis use on memory function: An update. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022). SAMHSA’s National Helpline.

White, A. M. (2003). What happened? Alcohol, memory blackouts, and the brain. Alcohol Research & Health.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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(Video) Memory Deficits Amnesia and Dementia

FAQs

Is there a link between dementia and alcoholism? ›

Alcohol consumption in excess has well-documented negative effects on both short- and long-term health, one of which is brain damage that can lead to Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

How does alcohol cause memory loss? ›

Alcohol affects the way memories are stored in your brain, which can make it difficult to remember what occurred while you were drinking. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can lead to blackouts, which are severe memory lapses that happen when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is high.

Is memory loss due to alcohol reversible? ›

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).

What type of dementia is caused by alcohol? ›

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.

What are the three clinical features of alcohol related dementia? ›

The person may have memory loss and difficulty thinking things through. They may have problems with more complex tasks, such as managing their finances. The symptoms may cause problems with daily life. For example, the person may no longer be able to cook a meal.

How can you tell if someone has alcohol induced dementia? ›

Alcoholic Dementia Symptoms

These symptoms may include: Memory loss. Problems learning new things. Personality changes.

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

dementia-like symptoms, such as difficulties forming new memories. changes in mood or behavior. increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. changes in blood flow patterns in the brain.

What type of memory does alcohol affect? ›

Alcohol primarily disrupts the ability to form new long–term memories; it causes less disruption of recall of previously established long–term memories or of the ability to keep new information active in short–term memory for a few seconds or more.

How long can you live with alcohol dementia? ›

Korsakoff's syndrome dementia affects not just the brain, but also the cardiovascular and central nervous system. Once a person has been diagnosed with end stage alcoholism, life expectancy can be as limited as six months.

Does the brain repair itself after alcoholism? ›

Alcohol related brain damage and recovery. Studies into the effects of alcohol on the brain have shown that the brain is able to repair itself remarkably quickly after stopping drinking.

Can you repair alcohol damage to the brain? ›

There are no cures for alcohol-related brain damage. For those with WKS, thiamine and vitamin supplements can improve brain function. Early diagnosis of alcohol-related dementia, hepatic encephalopathy, and FAS can halt alcohol-related brain damage and lifestyle changes may even reverse deterioration.

When does alcoholic dementia set in? ›

The onset of alcohol dementia can occur as early as age 30, although it is far more common that the dementia will reveal itself anywhere from age 50 to 70. The onset and the severity of this type of dementia is directly correlated to the amount of alcohol that a person consumes over their lifetime.

What happens when a person with dementia drink alcohol? ›

Alcoholism plus dementia causes faster decline in skills needed to function independently, worsens behavioral problems, and raises safety concerns for the person with dementia and the people caring for them. Alcohol and medication are also a dangerous combination.

Which form of progressive dementia is often a result of chronic alcoholism? ›

Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome is a condition that is similar to dementia and is caused by drinking too much alcohol. Very rarely, Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome can be caused by factors other than alcohol. The majority of cases are caused by alcohol, and alcohol-related 'dementia' is the focus of this information.

What is the usual age range of onset for Korsakoff syndrome? ›

Like more common types of dementia, it may be underdiagnosed. The disorder affects slightly more males than females, and is evenly distributed between ages 30 and 70.

Can MRI detect alcohol dementia? ›

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 is the first thing that alcohol effects in the brain? ›

What is the First Brain Function Affected by Alcohol? The first area compromised is the Cerebral Cortex, which causes confusion and lowers inhibitions. For example, jokes start to seem funnier, and a user may be less afraid to talk to new people or do something outside of their comfort zone.

What part of the brain is most damaged by alcohol? ›

The cerebellum, an area of the brain responsible for coordinating movement and perhaps even some forms of learning, appears to be particularly sensitive to the effects of thiamine deficiency and is the region most frequently damaged in association with chronic alcohol consumption.

What part of the brain is affected first when drinking? ›

Alcohol can appear to be a stimulant because, initially, it depresses the part of the brain that controls inhibitions. cerebral cortex as it works with information from a person's senses. In the cerebral cortex, alcohol can a ect thought processes, leading to potentially poor judgment.

Do alcoholics lose their memory? ›

Memory impairment is one of the most common problems associated with alcohol related brain impairment (ARBI). Some people struggle to remember things from day-to-day, while others have difficulty remembering skills, knowledge or information they have learnt in the past.

How much alcohol does it take to get dementia? ›

The hazard ratio for abstinence compared to consumption of 1–14 drinks per week for developing any kind of dementia was 1.47, after adjusting for confounders (extensive assessment of sociodemographic data and cardiovascular health data).

How long does it take for brain chemistry to return to normal after alcohol? ›

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 long does it take to reverse the effects of alcohol on the brain? ›

The effects of abstinence from alcohol typically peak and are maintained after 5-7 years of complete abstinence, although the most salient effects occur within the first year. However, any further damage due to alcohol abuse is also negated if one stops drinking.

What does wet brain feel like? ›

The first component of WKS is Wernicke's encephalopathy (WE), which is a short-term neurological disorder. The three hallmark signs of WE include mental confusion and apathy, loss of muscular coordination while standing or walking, and eye movement dysfunction and vision disturbances.

What happens to the brain when you stop drinking? ›

In a study by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that when an alcoholic stops drinking, the brain's ability to use dopamine changes, altering how the reward system is wired. Like many drugs, alcohol stimulates the production of dopamine, a chemical messenger that activates the brain's reward center.

What is considered heavy drinking? ›

What do you mean by heavy drinking? For men, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week. For women, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 8 drinks or more per week.

How long does it take for your brain to go back to normal after drinking? ›

The good news is that our bodies are miraculous creations that can heal over time! Once someone stops drinking, the alcohol will be fully out of their system within 24-48 hours meaning the healing process can begin.

Does alcohol damage short term memory? ›

Research shows that heavy alcohol use can damage short- and long-term memory and affect brain structure. There may be ways to lessen alcohol's effects on memory by reducing the amount of alcohol consumed and by using memory techniques to overcome memory loss issues.

How do you stop forgetting things when drunk? ›

Preventing an Alcohol Blackout
  1. Drink slowly.
  2. Avoid shots or drinking games.
  3. Eat food before drinking.
  4. Eat more food if you're drinking for a long time.
  5. Stay hydrated with water.
  6. Ask a sober friend to cut you off after a certain number of drinks.

What is the average lifespan of an alcoholic? ›

The conclusion of the study was that people who have to be hospitalized because of the negative health effects of their alcoholism typically have an average life expectancy of 47 to 53 years for men and 50 to 58 years for women.

What happens if you drink alcohol everyday for a year? ›

Long-Term Health Risks. 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 happens when you stop drinking for a year? ›

What are the results? A few months in, I experienced improved sleep, increased energy, less spiky blood sugar, better mental health, fewer bouts of anxiety. These days, I have fewer headaches and my whole digestive system, in general, feels less irritated and inflamed, with a growing sense of general wellbeing.

What part of the brain is affected by alcohol first? ›

What is the First Brain Function Affected by Alcohol? The first area compromised is the Cerebral Cortex, which causes confusion and lowers inhibitions.

What happens to your brain when you drink excessively? ›

Alcohol interferes with the brain's communication pathways and can affect the way the brain looks and works. Alcohol makes it harder for the brain areas controlling balance, memory, speech, and judgment to do their jobs, resulting in a higher likelihood of injuries and other negative outcomes.

Can alcohol cause false memories? ›

Highlights. Witnesses, victims, and suspects are often intoxicated with alcohol or other drugs. Substances can increase susceptibility to false memory formation and suggestibility.

Do people mean what they say when drunk? ›

Do people mean what they say when drunk? Yes, sometimes people mean what they say when they are drunk. But most of the time, people say whatever comes to mind when drinking, without any concern if it's genuinely how they feel. Alcohol lowers inhibition and makes people feel talkative, extroverted, and emboldened.

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