In all cultures, alcohol is associated with celebrations — be it birthdays, anniversaries, job promotions, and more. Drinking in moderation is generally considered okay. However, it’s easy to lose track of your intake when you’re happy and celebrating, and just like everything else, excessive drinking is damaging.
Heavy or long-term alcohol consumption can be detrimental to your physical and mental well-being, including brain health. The brain is a complex and delicate organ that must have a careful balance of chemicals to function properly. Intoxication due to alcoholic drinks can disrupt this balance, making the brain lose its natural equilibrium. What’s worse is that abuse of alcohol can give rise to learning and memory issues and severe mental health conditions.
So, how exactly does the beer or wine you drink harms memory function? Keep reading to find out.
Alcohol’s Adverse Effects on the Brain
Alcohol is linked to over 200 diseases, injuries, and conditions, including brain-related ones. While it can take years of heavy drinking to develop alcohol-related disorders, negative effects on memory function can appear after a glass or two of drinks.
In context, this is what happens when you drink too much alcohol — ethanol enters the body and travels from the stomach and intestines to different organs through the bloodstream. In the liver, spikes in blood alcohol content can overload its ability to process alcohol. So the excess substance moves from the liver to other parts of the body, such as the heart and central nervous system.
The brain has a blood-brain barrier that’s supposed to protect it from toxic foreign substances, like ethanol, which is the organic chemical compound in your beer or whiskey. However, this barrier can’t filter out the ethanol, so it passes through the barrier easily, harming the neurons. There are over 100 billion interconnected neurons in the central nervous system and the brain. As a toxic substance, this is how ethanol inflicts damage to the neurons.
Immediate effects of alcohol on the brain
1. Changes in vision, reaction, and speech
Drinking alcohol has instantaneous effects: blurry vision, slower reaction time, and slurred speech. This shows after a couple of glasses of drinks, but wanes after an hour or so, depending on your alcohol tolerance.
If you regularly consume large amounts of alcohol over a long period, you may experience brain deficits that can persist even after you stop drinking.2. Blackouts and memory issues
Alcohol can lead to memory issues as your intake increases. When consumed too fast and on an empty stomach, it can cause blackouts. If this happens, you won’t be able to recall specific details of what happened or even the entire event, leading to fleeting memory loss.3. Alcohol intoxication
Intoxication results from alcohol’s short-term effects on the central nervous system. Its symptoms can vary dramatically depending on:
- The amount you drink
- How often you drink
- Your weight
- Your unique bodily makeup
Binge drinking or drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time can lead to alcohol overdose or poisoning. Here are some symptoms:
- Problems with remaining conscious
- Respiratory suppression
- Slowing heart rate
- Permanent cognitive disruption or impairment
Overdrinking can be life-threatening, and in the worst case, it can result in death. Call your local emergency number right away if you suspect that a senior loved one or another family member is showing signs of alcohol overdose or poisoning.
Long-term effects of alcohol on the brain
1. Brain shrinkage
Anyone with a regular drinking habit is at an increased risk for alcohol-related complications, especially those taking alcohol over long periods. Alcohol abuse can trigger a host of many health concerns, such as a weakened immune system, heart problems, liver complications, cancer, and psychological conditions, like anxiety and depression.
Research also proves that alcohol can impose lasting harm on your brain, potentially shrinking your brain. Experts followed participants for 30 years in one study while tracking their drinking patterns and brain health.
It was found that individuals who drank 30 units or more of alcohol (1 unit contains 10 ml of alcohol) were almost six times at risk of hippocampus shrinkage compared to participants who didn’t drink. It also turns out that hippocampal atrophy affected mild and moderate alcohol drinkers.2. Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome
People dependent on alcohol are also vulnerable to developing thiamine deficiency due to poor nutrition. This can ultimately develop into Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), a degenerative brain disorder commonly referred to as “wet brain.” It is a brain disease with two different stages: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.
The first stage, Wernicke encephalopathy, has symptoms that include eye movement disturbances, muscle coordination difficulty, and persistent mental confusion. When these symptoms go away, the disease progresses to stage two, which is Korsakoff's psychosis or syndrome.
Around 80 to 90% of people with Wernicke’s encephalopathy also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, a debilitating and chronic syndrome characterized by persistent learning and memory problems. Individuals with Korsakoff’s psychosis get easily frustrated, experience balance and movement problems, and are forgetful.
Those diagnosed have problems remembering old information (retrograde amnesia). It’s also twice more difficult to retain new information (anterograde amnesia). For example, your loved one can discuss a specific life event in great detail, but an hour later, they might not remember ever having the conversation.
Treatment for Alcohol-Related Problems
A thorough medical checkup is necessary to diagnose the health problem properly and create a personalized treatment program. Depending on the severity of brain impairment, patients may receive either restorative, preventative, or end-of-life supportive medical care. For instance, vitamin supplements can improve brain function if you’re diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Early diagnosis and intervention can halt alcohol-related brain damage. Lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, and enough sleep, may even reverse the brain deterioration caused by alcohol. In a nutshell, quitting or not engaging in alcohol is the key to side-step its dangerous effects on the brain.
Some studies have noted unexpected health benefits of alcohol, so it might not be entirely bad news for other people with certain health conditions. The key always lies in moderation. If your loved one weighs the risk and benefits and learns to manage their alcohol intake, it may promote good health.
Syed has years of experience dealing with people, understanding their needs, and helping them find solutions to their problems.
As a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA), Certified Dementia Practitioner (CDP), Certified Montessori Dementia Care Professional (CMDCP), Syed is committed to working closely with Senior and their family knowing what is it like for individuals facing a challenging time, at times groping in dark trying to figure what is the appropriate next step or care level for their unique situation.
Syed and Senex Memory Advisors are fully committed to working closely with families in creating a personalized, step-by-step process memory care plan at zero cost.