Alcohol Amnesia, Memory Loss & Blackouts
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Alcohol can affect your short and long-term memory and cause blackouts, which can occur when you have too much alcohol in your blood.
While alcohol provides a way to relax or socialize, it carries many potential side effects and dangers. One of these is amnesia, which is memory loss that is often permanent. While many people think of alcohol-induced amnesia as something only those who chronically use alcohol are at risk for, a single episode of drinking can cause this condition. It is important for anyone who uses alcohol to understand what alcohol-induced amnesia is and how to avoid it.
The Relationship Between Alcohol and Memory
Alcohol can affect your memory in several ways, leading to short and long-term effects. Alcohol chemically suppresses your brain’s normal function, potentially leading to memory disruption while you are drinking. Additionally, alcohol can increase your risk of several neurological conditions that can permanently affect your memory and cause lasting brain damage.
Your memory involves two important components: short and long-term memory. Everything that happens is stored in your short-term memory for a few minutes and then is transferred to your long-term memory. While your short-term memory is very vivid, your long-term memory is often difficult to access, and unimportant information is easily forgotten.
This effect is why you can easily recall what you ate during your last meal but not what you ate for breakfast a month ago. Alcohol can affect your long-term memory and the transfer of short-term memories to your long-term memory.
How Alcohol Affects Short-Term Memory
Alcohol does not tend to affect your short-term memory directly but can affect your brain’s ability to move short-term memories into your long-term memory. This can happen with a single episode of drinking; this situation is often called a blackout. When a blackout occurs, your short-term memory does not form any kind of long-term memory, and you permanently forget what happened minutes after it occurs.
Alcohol can also permanently affect your ability to form new memories from your short-term memory in a condition called Korsakoff syndrome. Caused by an alcohol-induced deficiency in vitamin B1 (thiamine), this condition permanently keeps you from forming long-term memories from your short-term memories, creating a permanent type of dementia.
The Impact of Alcohol on Long-Term Memory
While alcohol can affect your ability to form long-term memories from your short-term memory, it can also directly affect your long-term memory. Korsakoff syndrome, for example, destroys long-term memories that previously existed. Chronic alcohol use also increases your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, which destroys long-term memories. Alcohol increases the risk of traumatic brain injury, which can also cause memory loss.
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What Is Alcohol Amnesia?: Signs and Symptoms
Alcohol-induced amnesia, often referred to as a blackout, is a condition that can occur when you have too much alcohol in your blood. During a blackout, your brain does not form long-term memories, and you will not be able to remember what happened during the blackout even though you were awake and interacting with others.
While alcohol-induced amnesia typically refers to blackouts, it can technically be used to describe any memory loss caused by using alcohol. This can include alcohol-induced dementia and other conditions caused by alcohol that affect your memory.
Differentiating Between Memory Loss and Blackouts
The difference between memory loss and blackouts is very subtle. Memory loss occurs when you create a memory; then something happens that erases that memory. During a blackout, your short-term memories never turn into long-term memories, and a memory never forms. You don’t lose your memory because it was never created in the first place.
Causes Behind Alcohol-Induced Memory Loss and Blackouts
The cause of alcohol-induced blackouts is typically the effects of high levels of alcohol on a part of your brain called the hippocampus. This area of the brain is involved in creating long-term memories and can be inhibited by high levels of alcohol.
Alcohol-induced memory loss can be more complex. It is often caused by:
- Some form of brain damage
- Damage caused by injury
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
- Other alcohol-related brain damage
Why Do Some People Experience Blackouts While Others Don’t?
Blackouts are not completely straightforward, and some people may experience a blackout while others with the same level of alcohol in their blood do not. Additionally, some people will experience a partial blackout, called a fragmented blackout or sometimes a “brownout,” while others will experience a full, or en bloc, blackout.
The differences in blackout experiences are due to blood alcohol levels but also related to many other factors, including:
- Overall health
- Use of medications
- Mental health
- Environmental factors
Someone wanting to learn more about their risk of experiencing a blackout should consult their doctor for personalized information.
Prevention of Alcohol-Induced Amnesia
The only sure way to prevent alcohol-induced amnesia is to avoid high levels of alcohol use. The higher the concentration of alcohol in your blood, the greater the risk of developing alcohol-induced amnesia. Some ways to help keep the alcohol levels in your blood lower while drinking include:
- Spacing your drinks apart
- Not drinking on an empty stomach
- Drinking low-proof beverages
- Drinking non-alcoholic beverages between drinks
- Avoiding drinking while on medications
- Not drinking while using other substances
One factor that can significantly increase the risk of alcohol-induced amnesia is alcohol addiction. When addiction is present, controlling your alcohol use can be difficult or even impossible. It is important to get help for addiction if you find it hard to control your alcohol use.
Treatment Options for Alcohol-Related Amnesia and Blackouts
If you experience blackouts while drinking or are concerned they may occur, you should consider that your relationship with alcohol may be unhealthy. At The Recovery Village at Baptist Health, we can help ensure that you are controlling alcohol instead of the other way around. Our caring, expert staff can help you achieve lasting freedom from the influence of alcohol. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you start on your journey to lasting recovery.
Is memory loss normal after drinking?
Memory loss after drinking can occur if excessive amounts of alcohol are used. If you have experienced memory loss after drinking, it indicates that you are using too much alcohol and need to better control how much you drink. It also indicates that you are at a higher risk for experiencing alcohol poisoning, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when you overdose on alcohol.
Who is most at risk of blacking out?
Those who drink excessively are at the highest risk of blacking out. While many factors can increase your risk of blacking out, the amount you drink in a short period has the greatest influence on whether you will experience a blackout.
Can alcohol-related memory loss and blackouts be prevented?
The only 100% sure way to avoid alcohol-related memory loss and blackouts is to avoid drinking alcohol. Limiting your drinking to moderate use can reduce your risk of alcohol-related memory loss to a negligible amount, but carries a risk that drinking will eventually increase and become harder to control. Stopping alcohol altogether is the only fool-proof way to prevent alcohol-related memory issues.
If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol abuse or addiction, contact The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health to speak with a representative about how addiction treatment can help. Take the first step toward a healthier future and call today.
MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed August 31, 2023.
Department of Health, State Government of Victoria, Australia. “Alcohol related brain impairment – memory loss.” April 30, 2015. Accessed August 31, 2023.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.” January 31, 2023. Accessed August 31, 2023.
Dementia Australia. “Alcohol related dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.” 2016. Accessed August 31, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts.” February 2023. Accessed August 31, 2023.