Why Does Alcoholism Cause Memory Loss?

What’s your earliest childhood memory? Most of us have been asked that at some point in our lives. It’s up there with those other classic questions, such as: What would you do if you won the Lottery?, What’s your favourite Beatles song? and Where were you when Timmy Mallet first burst onto the scene? (Well, perhaps not that last one; but you get the gist!).

The question about childhood memories is always a funny one. Why? Because many of us can remember, for example, playing in the sandpit or running after an ice cream van when we were little. But we couldn’t tell you what we had for tea last night!

Where memories are kept
Human memory is made up of two parts a) short-term memory, and b) long-term memory. Knowledge, experiences, and, well, memories are stored away somewhere in long-term memory (in a kind of ‘bank’). But some memories (usually of traumatic experiences) are simply too suppressed: buried deep in our subconscious, never to resurface in our lifetimes.

Heavy drinkers should beware
Moderate drinkers rarely experience massive memory loss; it is binge drinkers who should be worried. Functioning alcoholics (well educated and financially secure professionals) whose alcohol consumption is way above recommended levels* should be aware that advancing alcoholism causes brain damage. Short-term memory deterioration occurs as a result of this.

*Alcohol Concern.org recommends that men should not regularly drink more than three-to- four units of alcohol per day; women, not more than two-to-three units.

Memory mapping processes are unpredictable (and unreliable)
Leading brain researchers worldwide agree that Memory where it is in the brain and how that part of the brain encodes, stores and retrieves information is so complex it is possibly unfathomable. While it has been established that the hippocampus (an important limbic system structure) and the frontal cortex play a major role in human memory, so does electricity and chemicals within the brain.

The problem researchers have is that, when a human being encodes incoming information, the ‘electrical wiring’ inside different parts of the brain rewires in a unique way each time, making it impossible to map the process accurately, to identify set patterns.

What is known is that ethanol (found in all alcoholic drinks) impairs human memory because it disrupts hippocampus function. This doesn’t have the potential to wipe memory completely, but it definitely creates gaps in memory.

Where were you last night?
Thousands of alcoholics across the country experience memory gaps, such as:

Waking up and having absolutely no idea how they got home the previous evening
Arriving home early evening, and being unable to remember who they drank with during a particularly heavy drinking session at lunchtime (even though they enjoyed an in-depth discussion with that person for hours at the time!)

As well as memory gaps (i.e. recall problems), alcoholics can also:

Forget to complete everyday tasks OK, neglecting to do the washing up is hardly potentially disastrous, but failing to remember it was your turn to pick the kids up from football practise after school certainly could be
Frequently retell the same stories or accounts of experiences, without realising they are repeating themselves (to a bored individual or group)
Forget wedding anniversaries and birthdays etc., which never goes down well!

Also, an alcoholic’s memory loss can create problems for other people, particularly when it comes to money. A binge drinker may recurrently forget to pay bills on time, to lock up the house after they’ve gone out, (and before that) to switch off the grill, oven, heater or other potentially dangerous household appliance, which could actually prove fatal.

So, is there any hope for memory restoration?
Fortunately, yes. Studies show that after kicking the booze permanently, reformed alcoholics can experience restored memory back to almost full functioning capacity. The brain somehow recalibrates, with new brain cells forming, and damaged ones healing to a level where memory gaps become infrequent.

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