Whether it’s over one night or several years, heavy alcohol use can lead to lapses in memory. This may include difficulty recalling recent events or even an entire night. It can also lead to permanent memory loss, described as dementia.

Doctors have identified several ways alcohol affects the brain and memory. People who binge drink or have alcohol use disorder (AUD) may experience short- and long-term memory loss.

A 2013 study found that an estimated 78 percent of individuals diagnosed with AUD experience changes to the brain.

Keep reading to learn why alcohol can affect short- and long-term memory and what you can do about it.

Doctors have identified several ways drinking alcohol can affect a person’s memory. These include the following:

Short-term memory

Some people experience what doctors call a blackout when they drink too much alcohol and don’t remember key details.

These situations can range from small, such as where a person put their keys, to large, such as forgetting what happened in night. According to Duke University, the inability to remember anything from a night out usually occurs after a person has had five or more drinks.

Alcohol affects short-term memory by slowing down how nerves communicate with each other in a part of the brain called the hippocampus.

The hippocampus plays a significant role in helping people form and maintain memories. When normal nerve activity slows down, short-term memory loss can occur.

Long-term memory loss

Heavy alcohol use doesn’t only slow down the hippocampus, it can damage it. Alcohol can destroy nerve cells. This affects a person’s memory in the short and long term.

In addition, people who drink too much alcohol are often deficient in vitamin B-1, or thiamine. This vitamin is vital to providing energy to brain and nerve cells.

Alcohol use affects how well the body uses thiamine. It can also affect thiamine in the following ways:

  • People who drink heavily may not eat a healthy diet and miss out on key nutrients.
  • Drinking too much alcohol can irritate the stomach lining, which affects how the stomach absorbs nutrients.
  • Heavy alcohol use can cause vomiting, which keeps the stomach and intestines from absorbing nutrients.

Thiamine deficiency can cause dementia, which is progressive and permanent memory loss.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a type of dementia linked to heavy alcohol use. This condition creates gaps in a person’s memory. It’s possible that a person can prevent this syndrome from getting worse, but they usually must stop drinking and enhance their nutrient intake.

Usually, the effects of long-term memory loss are related to drinking 21 or more drinks a week for 4 years or more, according to Massachusetts General Hospital.

Older people

Older individuals are more vulnerable to the short- and long-term effects of alcohol use on their brains.

As a person ages, their brain becomes more sensitive to alcohol. Their metabolism also slows down, so the alcohol stays in their system for longer.

Additionally, many older people also experience a slow degeneration of the cells in the hippocampus. It’s not usually severe enough to cause symptoms of dementia. But when you add the effects of heavy alcohol use, memory loss can be very serious.

In addition to these considerations, older people also tend to take more medications than younger people. These medications can potentially interact with alcohol, which can worsen symptoms.

Older people are also more vulnerable to injuries from falls due to changes in eyesight, spatial recognition, and bone health. Alcohol use can increase their risks for falls, as it can affect judgement and perception. A fall can injure them and affect their memory.

Some of alcohol’s effects on memory are apparent — maybe you wake up after a night of drinking and have a bruise you don’t remember getting, or you don’t recall any of the night’s previous events. Some effects are more subtle.

If you can identify with any of the following symptoms, you may be experiencing short-term memory loss from heavy alcohol use:

  • You’ve been told that you talked to someone recently about an event, but you don’t remember having the conversation.
  • You find yourself frequently confused or disoriented about where you are.
  • You have problems paying attention.
  • People often tell you about things you did while drinking that you can’t recall.
  • You’ve gotten in trouble with loved ones or the police when drinking, but you don’t fully remember what you did.

It can be hard to tell if a loved one has a drinking problem. This is especially true if they’re older — you may wonder if their symptoms are related to aging.

The following symptoms may indicate that they have alcohol-related long-term memory loss:

  • They have a symptom called confabulation, in which they make up small stories to fill gaps in their memory. Some people with conditions like WKS may do this.
  • They’re experiencing noticeable personality changes. This may include appearing more withdrawn, frustrated, or even angry.
  • They frequently ask the same question repeatedly and without signs they remember having asked it previously.
  • They have difficulty learning a new skill, such as playing a game. This can signal problems with recent memories.

It’s hard to know what to say to a loved one when you’re worried that their drinking is affecting their health. If you aren’t sure where to begin, consider talking to their healthcare provider or use the resources listed below.

If you’re having difficulty recalling an event from the night before, there isn’t much you can do to remember it. Sometimes, a smell, saying, or image may flash back in your mind, but you can’t force a memory to return.

However, there are treatments for people whose alcohol use affects their memory and overall functioning. These include:

  • Thiamine supplementation or intravenous (IV) thiamine. According to 2013 research, thiamine supplementation can help alleviate symptoms of WKS, which is caused by a thiamine deficiency.
  • Undergoing treatment for alcohol use disorder. Alcohol withdrawal can cause symptoms that range from mild, such as nausea and vomiting, to severe and life-threatening, such as racing heart, delirium, and very high body temperature. The more times you’ve withdrawn from alcohol, the more at risk you are for life-threatening consequences. You may need treatment at a hospital to safely withdraw.
  • Taking certain medication. Research suggests that memantine, which is used for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, may show promise in treating other types of dementia, such as alcohol-associated dementia.

You can avoid short-term memory loss by removing alcohol from the equation. Avoiding alcohol can help prevent dementia from worsening.

It’s important to note that most researchers and healthcare providers have found that alcohol consumed in moderation — one to two drinks for men and one for women — doesn’t typically affect memory.

A large-scale study that followed participants for 27 years found moderate alcohol consumption — defined as one to two drinks a few days a week — didn’t have an increased risk of dementia.

This research suggests that to protect your memory, drinking in moderation is the best policy (that is, if you choose to drink).

For people who drink daily and heavily, there isn’t always a safe or moderate amount of alcohol consumed.

If your healthcare provider has advised you to stop drinking entirely, it’s important to follow their advice. They can also recommend a program to help you quit.

Here are some ways to keep alcohol away from your home:

  • Throw away any alcohol in the home, including cough syrups that contain alcohol.
  • Tell friends and family they shouldn’t bring or buy alcohol for you or a loved one.
  • Ask grocery stores or delivery services not to deliver alcohol to your home.

Some people may find that they can drink nonalcoholic wine or beer if they crave the taste of alcohol.

If you or a loved one drink heavily and it’s affecting your memory and overall health, help is available. Here are some places to start:

  • Talk to your primary care doctor. If you drink heavily, you may need medical support for when you decide to stop drinking to prevent potentially severe withdrawal symptoms. Your doctor may suggest admitting you to a hospital or alcohol treatment facility to help.
  • Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) free national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The helpline is available 24 hours a day.
  • Find a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting near you. These meetings are free and have helped thousands of people stay sober.
  • Talk to friends and family members, and tell them if you think you need help. Their support can help get you through.

You should never be ashamed or afraid to ask for help. These steps can save your life.

Alcohol consumed in excess can affect memory. If a person uses it heavily long-term, they’re at risk for a number of memory-related health conditions.

If you or a loved one frequently engage in binge drinking or have an addiction to alcohol, talk to your healthcare provider or call the SAMHSA National Helpline.