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Alcohol and memory loss

“Before I started to drink heavily, I used to have a brilliant memory,” explains Eloise*. “The deterioration in my levels of recall after I went from being a moderate drinker to an alcoholic was certainly noticeable. It impacted negatively on all areas of my life including family, friendships and work.”

Although Eloise managed to quit drinking after seeking professional help, problems with her memory still plague her to some degree. The brain cells that are lost as a result of excessive alcohol consumption on a regular basis do not always renew, meaning that memory loss through alcoholism can be long-lasting.

An enduring problem

Most physical and mental health problems caused by alcohol abuse quickly stop after a complete cessation of drinking. Impaired speech and hearing, walking difficulties, reflex and reaction deceleration, skin discolouring and slackening, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, blackouts…once a heavy drinker tackles their addiction, they can look forward to putting all or most of those issues behind them and instead, enjoy a healthier, more fulfilling life and one in which alcohol plays no part.

Sadly, where brain cell erosion occurs through heavy drinking, sometimes the damage can be permanent. When alcohol interferes with chemicals in the brain that help to transmit signals from one neuron to another, weakened retrieval of information from both short and long-term memory sets in.

Short-term memory problems

“I once got into a lot of trouble through alcohol-caused short-term memory loss,” explains Marina*. “I’d read stories in the newspapers about people who go out for the evening and then have no recollection the following day of how they got home, or what they’d done when under the influence of alcohol. Aggressive behaviour, criminal damage to property, drunk driving, even unprotected sex… I’m utterly ashamed to say that I’ve been guilty of all of it on one single night, yet still have no memory whatsoever of that evening’s events.”

Blackouts and short-term memory lapses usually occur through:

  • Drinking too quickly
  • Drinking too much
  • Mixing drinks
  • Not eating before consuming large quantities of alcohol. Drinking even a small or moderate amount on an empty stomach can result in an interval of time later in the day or evening where you simply cannot recall details of events, or even the events themselves

Women are more prone than men to alcohol-influenced memory lapses and blackouts, simply because of metabolic differences between the sexes.

To avoid alcohol-caused blackouts, you can use a strategy:

  • Set yourself a sensible drinking limit for the night
  • Eat something substantial before you drink
  • Drink water before and in between alcoholic drinks
  • Think about staying in (and drinking non-alcoholic drinks) if you are sleep deprived

Also, don’t be pressurised by others into exceeding your drinking limit, and especially avoid participating in drinking games.

*All names have been changed.

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