Long-term alcohol consumption affects all your body's internal functions, including how the brain deciphers information. Alcohol attacks the brain cells that affects memory, coordination and concentration. If you are a heavy drinker for one or more years, you may cause irreversible damage in which your ability to remember information is permanently impaired. Memory loss ranges from frequent memory lapses to serious neurological conditions.
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How Alcohol Affects Brain
Alcohol begins negatively affecting memory when you have just one or two drinks, according to "What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain" by Dr. Aaron M. White. It blocks regions of the brain that control the formation of memories, storing them, recalling them and emotions associated with those memories, particularly the brain's hippocampus and hypothalamus. The hippocampus stores long-term memories, while the hypothalamus controls emotions, says the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Alcohol-induced blackouts, or alcohol-related amnesia, affects your ability to remember details from your past. Blackouts range from losing small chunks of your life to forgetting major events. "What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain" say researchers as far back as the 1940s collected data from Alcoholics Anonymous members and found that they experienced alcohol-induced amnesia when they drank. If you are a young adult, you begin experiencing alcohol-induced blackouts from binge drinking.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is actually two brain conditions -- Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome -- common in alcoholics. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia says these memory disorders occur because of vitamin B1 deficiency. Wernicke's encephalopathy causes you to forget simple tasks like walking or leaving and entering a room. MedlinePlus says Korsakoff syndrome affects your ability to make new memories and remember old memories. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome commonly occurs after you stop drinking. Doctors look for high alcohol levels in blood and urine and recommend a diet rich in foods with vitamin B1, such as fish, lean pork, brown rice, beans and egg yolks.
Hepatic encephalopathy impairs brain function because the liver cannot remove toxins from the blood, causing toxins to accumulate in the bloodstream, according to MedlinePlus. This condition leads to long-term memory problems even after you stop drinking. Hepatic encephalopathy causes you to forget events, as well as motor skills like writing and speaking. The condition requires intense medical intervention, including dietary counselling and feeding tubes. Severe cases of hepatic encephalopathy necessitates long-term care. Left untreated, you can slip into a coma and die.
Combined with Drugs
Long-term memory problems worsen if you combine alcohol consumption with taking recreational and prescription drugs, including Valium, sedatives and marijuana. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says drugs used to treat anxiety, epilepsy, muscle pain, pain killers and sleep disorder impair memory and decrease your motor skills. "What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts and the Brain states different drugs cause amnesia by themselves, so memory problems increase when you drink while taking them.
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- NIAAA; What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain; Aaron M. White, Ph.D., 2004
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Brain Basics: Know Your Brain
- MedlinePlus: Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
- MedlinePlus: Hepatic Encephalopathy
- NIAAA: Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines