Know the Facts

Helping you make informed decisions about your drinking

Long-Term Effects: The Brain

Drinking alcohol has effects on a range of functions controlled by the brain, including:

  • Memory
  • Reaction times
  • Concentration
  • Balance and coordination
  • Speech
  • Mood

The negative effects of drinking will generally reverse as the alcohol is processed and removed by your body, but if alcohol use is continued on a regular basis, some of the effects become worse, and can even become permanent.

Cognitive impairment

The term ‘cognition’ refers to mental processes like thoughts, memory, problem solving and decision making, to name just a few. The ability to engage in cognitive processes is described as ‘cognitive functioning’. The term ‘cognitive impairment’ refers to problems and difficulties in one or more areas of cognitive functioning.

Research has shown strong links between long-term heavy alcohol use and impairments in cognitive functioning, like slow processing of information, difficulty in learning new things and reduced problem-solving ability. The more you have been drinking, the greater the impairments will be. These effects are due to damage caused by alcohol in numerous ways:

  • Wasting away of brain tissue
  • Development of scar tissue in the brain
  • Chronic vitamin deficiencies

In most cases, lengthy abstinence from alcohol (3+ months) will result in a return to normal cognitive functioning. But in some cases, usually after a long history of high levels of alcohol abuse, the damage to the brain can be permanent.

Reducing risk

The only way to remove your risk of developing alcohol-related cognitive impairments is to abstain from drinking alcohol. But if you do plan to drink, you can reduce your overall risk of alcohol-related impairment by sticking to a limit of no more than two standard drinks on any day.

Sources

  • Evert, D.L. & Oscar-Berman, M. (1995). Alcohol-related cognitive impairments: An overview of how alcoholism may affect the workings of the brain. Alcohol Research and Health, 19, 89-96.
  • Knight, R.G. (2001). Neurological consequences of alcohol use. In N. Heather, T.J. Peters & T. Stockwell (Eds.). International Handbook of Alcohol Dependence and Problems. (pp. 103-127). West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  • Oscar-Berman, M. & Marinkovic, K. (2003). Alcoholism and the brain: An overview. Alcohol Research and Health, 27, 125-133.
  • Schuckit, M.A. (2006). Drug and alcohol abuse: A clinical guide to diagnosis and treatment. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.