< Ask the doc

Ask the Doc: Does drinking affect my memory?


Does drinking affect my memory?


There are a few different aspects to memory.

You’ve probably heard about short-term memory and long-term memory. Long-term memories can be deliberately recalled, like recalling a birthday party from your childhood or song lyrics, or they can be unconscious, like how to ride a bike.

Short-term memory allows your brain to remember small amounts of information for a little while, like someone’s name when you’ve just met them. Working memory is a form of short-term memory that allows us to hold new information in our mind while we apply it or use it for some other task, like remembering and responding to what’s said in a conversation.

The functions in the brain that control short- and long-term memory are affected by alcohol, so our memory is affected when we drink alcohol.

Working memory is impaired when you drink alcohol, and it seems that the more you drink the worse your working memory is. There’s also a suggestion from the research that the effects of alcohol on working memory might be worse in males than females. Problems with working memory that are caused by alcohol might contribute to excessive drinking by affecting your ability to weigh up the consequences of your behaviour or stick to your intentions.

Alcoholic blackouts are a perfect example of how drinking can affect long-term memory. In these situations, people fail to form new long-term memories while they are intoxicated — they are unable to remember what happened when they were drunk when they think back afterwards. This happens even though their short-term memory is functional (but probably impaired) when they are drunk.

Problems with long-term memory that are caused by alcohol depend on how much you’ve had to drink. Small amounts of alcohol have small effects on memory, and heavy drinking has more severe effects, leading to blackouts.

Heavy drinking in teenage years and early adulthood appears to affect the structure of the brain and result in problems with brain function, including memory, and alcohol use disorders are a major risk factor for dementia, especially early-onset dementia in males.

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol affects your memory. Drinking a lot can have devastating effects.

More from Ask the Doc

Subscribe to the monthly newsletter

Each month we release two email newsletters – one written for men, family and friends, and another for health practitioners.

Which newsletter/s would you like to subscribe to?