This post was originally published on August 11, 2014.
It doesn’t take a lot of science to show that heavy drinking and memory loss go together like Vegas and bad decisions. Not only can a few too many tequila shots cause massive chunks of an evening to seemingly vanish into the ether, but I’ve found that hard drinking throughout my 20s even blurred my memory of things that happened when I was relatively sober. I can still remember word-for-word conversations I had as far back as kindergarten, but college? Forget it.
Problem Drinking Leads to a Problem Memory
Now a long-term study by the University of Exeter in England has determined that people with a history of drinking problems during middle age are more likely to suffer memory problems as senior citizens. Not exactly a huge shocker, but a little disturbing nonetheless if you fall into that bucket.
The study followed 6,500 Americans born between 1931 and 1941. When they were in their 50s, the subjects were asked four initial questions about their lives so far: if they’d ever felt they should cut down on their drinking, if people had ever annoyed them by criticizing their drinking, if they’d ever felt guilty about drinking, or if they’d ever had a drink first thing in the morning. About 16% of the participants answered “yes” to at least two of those questions, which researchers defined as having had a drinking problem at some point.
Then every other year between 1996 and 2010, the subjects were asked follow-up questions in the form of cognitive exercises that test memory retention. That 16% of the group who’d had drinking problems struggled more than the rest with activities like word recall tests.
Why Things Gets Blurry
What exactly is it about heavy drinking that causes long-reaching effects on basic memory? The researchers believe excess alcohol can shrink some of the gray and white matter in the brain and may also deplete key vitamins that aid memory. Nothing makes me happier to be sober than the image of my brain literally shrinking.
One weakness of the study—and maybe a glimmer of hope for us in recovery—was that it didn’t account for when the heavy drinking took place. In other words, someone who got sober at 23 might potentially have a very different outlook from someone who didn’t start overdrinking until they were 40, or someone else whose love affair with the bottle lasted decades. That really would have been a helpful variable to keep track of, right?
Quit While You’re Ahead
But other studies have indicated that people who quit drinking relatively young can reverse some of the cognitive damage, especially if they also practice other healthy habits like balanced diet and nutrition. So stock up on kale and strap on your pedometers, folks—chances are your gray matter has some catching up to do.
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