Alcoholism and Memory Loss: Can Alcohol Affect Your Memory?

According to the 2019 national survey, 14.1 million adults ages 18 and older suffered from an alcohol use disorder. As many know, drinking heavily especially over long periods of time can affect the body adversely. An addiction to alcohol and memory loss can happen as a result.  

The brain is one part of the body that gets hit the hardest since alcohol is a depressant drug. Depressant drugs act on the central nervous system (CNS) to make people feel more relaxed. Over time, both young and old people might suffer from alcoholism and memory loss instead of relaxation. 

It’s difficult to stop drinking when people reach this stage. If so, it’s important that they go through an alcohol detox to reverse some of the harm done. Otherwise, it could result in lifetime memory loss and even alcohol-related dementia.  

Alcohol and Memory Loss 

According to the journal, Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy, about 78% of those suffering from an alcohol use disorder had abnormal brain changes. This journal also noted that heavy drinking could result in what’s known as alcohol-related dementia (ARD) and alcohol-induced persisting amnestic syndrome. The latter is known better by Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS).  

Both of these have similar characteristics to each other in the way they affect memory and are due to excessive drinking. Each causes permanent brain damage that can’t be reversed. For these reasons, they’re grouped together under the overarching term, alcohol-related brain damage or alcohol-related cognitive impairment. However, both of these health issues have their differences as well.

Memory Loss

Alcohol-Related Dementia (ARD)

ARD can change a person’s life significantly. Alcohol and memory don’t mix well together in the first place. Yet, excessive drinking over time induces a state of dementia. People with ARD may have extreme difficulty learning new things, doing semi-complicated tasks, logical thinking, and remembering things they once knew. Something which may have been simple in the past, such as driving a car, can be a foreign concept to people with it. 

Other signs and symptoms of ARD include: 

  • Trouble focusing 
  • Issues with problem-solving 
  • Difficulty controlling emotions 
  • Lack of planning and organizational skills 
  • Loss of motivation (even to do simple tasks like bathing)
  • Lack of short-term and long-term memory 
  • Inability to empathize with people
  • Difficulty balancing 

Alcoholism and memory loss issues are common with those with ARD. In cases such as these, they might be unable to stop drinking. Even when they recognize how it’s destroying their brain, their deep dependence on alcohol forces them to continue drinking. 

The signs and symptoms of ARD typically manifest based on how much damage was done to the brain through excessive drinking. Scans of the brain of those with ARD show a shrinkage of the frontal brain lobes. So, some people with ARD might display different symptoms than others. 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) 

While ARD is always because of excessive drinking, WKS isn’t always. This syndrome affects memory and can be due to consuming alcohol, is due to a lack of vitamin B1, or thiamine. Thiamine is an essential supplement that the body needs in order to function properly. It helps the immune system, converts energy, and is crucial to cognitive function overall. 

Signs and symptoms of WKS are: 

  • Low blood pressure 
  • Difficulty learning 
  • Memory loss (long-term and short-term)
  • Trouble developing new memories at all 
  • Vision impairments 
  • Constant confusion 

People who drink too much to the point of hurting their brain functionality may develop WKS chronically, or an acute version. The acute version that predates the chronic version is called Wernicke’s encephalopathy. The long-term, chronic version can be called Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome. Some medical professionals believe that WKS can be separated into these two versions. 

Swift treatment can prevent deeper brain and nerve damage. Abstaining from drinking is absolutely necessary to recovery. That said, even in the acute stage, those in recovery may still never regain their brain functionality as it once was in the past. 

Alcohol and Memory Loss in Young People 

One of the reasons that there is a law put in place to stop people of a certain age from drinking is because it can affect their brains negatively. The brain isn’t fully formed when a person is younger. Drinking can stunt the parts of their brain that have to do with memory. 

Research shows that young adults who admitted to drinking heavily had a smaller hippocampus than their peers who did not. The hippocampus is the portion of the brain that has to do with memory and learning. Young adults with this issue weren’t able to process information as well as their peers who didn’t drink heavily which leads to a learning disability overall. 

Alcohol and Memory Loss

Blacking Out From Alcohol and Memory Loss 

The effects of alcohol on memory can result in long-term, permanent damage. However, most people are aware that it can affect memory in the short term as well. For instance, when people drink too much to get to a certain blood alcohol content (BAC), they will blackout. One study shows that when people reach a BAC of 0.22%, there is a 50% chance they will experience a blackout. 

When a person blacks out they won’t recall what happened while they were drunk. Similarly, they might remember a portion of what happened, but not everything. In this case, it’s called browning out, greying out, or a partial blackout.  

Drinking excessively over time can affect the hippocampus permanently. Though, excessive drinking in the short term still affects the hippocampus, as alcohol interacts with the central nervous system (CNS). New memories can’t be formed when a person is blacked out, although they might be able to engage in conversations and drive. This isn’t always the case. 

When a person blacks out they may have trouble: 

  • Standing 
  • Not slurring their speech 
  • Making sound judgments 
  • Seeing correctly 
  • Walking 
  • Driving 

Although a person may have drunk enough alcohol and memory loss is occurring, they might not be aware of it. When this happens it can be dangerous as they might engage in risky behaviors, like driving. It’s easy to crash in this state of mind. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Intervention (CDC) estimates that there are 261 deaths per day because of excessive drinking. Alcohol-related crashes result in about one death per 50 minutes in the United States. This accounts for 28% of all deaths that have to do with motor vehicles. 

Avoiding the Effects of Alcohol and Memory Loss: Professional Treatment

Once a person suffers from alcoholism and memory loss as a result, it’s difficult to reverse the damage. Yet, some research shows promising results for those with WKS and ARD. For instance, since WKS is due to a thiamine deficiency, getting enough could help with some of the symptoms. Thiamine supplements and consuming this vitamin through an IV can help. Additionally, abstaining from drinking as a whole is important to recovering from WKS. 

Also, taking the medication, memantine, can potentially help with the symptoms of ARD. This medication helps people with Alzheimer’s, which also results in a slow progression of memory loss over time (like ARD). It also helps with symptoms of dementia in general. The way it works is by minimizing irregular activity within the brain. However, it’s important to note that it won’t cure ARD, and those suffering from alcoholism will continue to get worse if they don’t stop drinking. 

Treatment for Alcoholism 

alcoholism and memory loss

The best way to stop the slow creep of memory loss due to excessive drinking is to stop drinking. Treatment like thiamine supplements and memantine will only do so much. They won’t be effective if people suffering from alcoholism continue to drink while or after they take either. An alcohol detox is the first step to overcoming alcoholism and preventing any further brain damage in the process. 

When an individual goes through an alcohol detox, they will be able to get rid of all the toxins and traces of the substance in a safe environment. The trouble with detoxing from alcohol is that it could result in severe withdrawal symptoms. Some of these symptoms include: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Headaches 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Seizures
  • Shakiness 
  • Vomiting and nausea 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Fever-like symptoms 
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate 

For reasons such as these, it’s necessary to be supervised when deciding to cut alcohol out after an addiction to it. If a person drinks to the point of memory loss, it’s likely they will have severe withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop on their own. Additionally, certain medications can help make the process more comfortable. 

After the detox, people suffering from an alcohol addiction will still need to learn how to stop drinking for good. Counseling and therapy can teach people how to cope with difficult situations that may trigger their urge to drink. This can be done in an inpatient or outpatient setting. People with an alcohol addiction may opt for inpatient alcohol treatment because they will be able to live at the facility, which removes external triggers. 

Coastal Detox Can Help People Overcome Alcoholism and Memory Loss 

Here at Coastal Detox, we are dedicated to helping patients get through an addiction and mitigate some of the effects that are associated with it, like memory loss. It’s not an easy process, but our compassionate team is here to provide help every step of the way. Don’t wait a moment longer to get the help you deserve. Contact us now if you are suffering from alcoholism.

References: 

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