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There’s no doubt that alcohol affects the brain in many ways, and even a few drinks may cause slowed reaction times, difficulty walking and slurred speech. Most minor issues with memory go away soon after alcohol leaves the system.
An occasional drink doesn’t appear to do any harm, but memory problems may result when a person engages in binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in any two-hour period. A person who binge drinks frequently over an extended period of time may develop long-lasting memory loss.
Some problems may consist of an occasional lapse in memory, but other, more debilitating memory problems may require a lifetime of medical care.
Researchers are still studying exactly how alcohol affects memory, but we know there are a number of factors at play:
To complicate matters even further, alcohol-related memory problems may be the direct result of heavy drinking, or indirectly related due to liver disease or poor overall health related to long-term alcoholism.
Alcoholics are frequently malnourished and poor nutrition is often associated with deficiencies in vitamin B1 (thiamine). In the United States and other developed countries, many foods are enriched with thiamine, so a person with a relatively healthy diet generally receives sufficient amounts of this critical nutrient.
However severe alcoholics who get most of their calories from alcohol may be severely deficient. Poor diet can also prevent the body from properly absorbing vitamin B1.
A long-term vitamin B1 deficiency can also result in a life-threatening disease known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which shows itself much like Alzheimer’s Disease.
Young drinkers are more vulnerable to memory problems, as binge drinking may interfere with the activity of brain cells associated with memory and learning. People who start binge-drinking during their teens may experience problems with memory loss continuing well into adulthood.