Heavy Alcohol Use Damages Day-To-Day Memory Function

Heavy Drinkers Make Significantly More Memory Mistakes

Can Alcohol Damage Memory?
Credit: Frank Martin Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Heavy alcohol use damages your short- and long-term memory. In this article we will address two types of memory:

  • Retrospective memory, that is the learning, retention, and retrieval of previously presented materials.
  • Prospective memory is your day-to-day memory function, specifically, remembering to do things at some future point in time, and everyday memory, remembering to complete daily activities.

    Prospective Memory Basics

    Impairment to your prospective memory includes things, such as:

    • forgetting to send your daughter her birthday card on time
    • forgetting what you're about to say in the middle of a sentence
    • telling a friend a story you've already told them
    • forgetting where regularly used household items are kept

    Obviously, we all forget things from time to time, however, heavy drinkers make noticeably more of these mistakes than non-drinkers and people who don't drink regularly.

    The Dose-Dependant Effect of Alcohol on Prospective Memory

    There is a dose-dependent effect of alcohol use on day-to-day memory function, according to results of a study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

    Researchers collected data from 763 participants (465 female, 298 males) and assessed memory using two self-report questionnaires: the Prospective Memory Questionnaire (PMQ), and the Everyday Memory Questionnaire (EMQ).


    The data show a typical heavy user of alcohol reported over 30 percent more memory-related problems than someone who reportedly did not drink, and almost 25 percent more problems than those who stated they drank only small amounts of alcohol.

    More specifically, those participants who reported higher levels of alcohol consumption were more likely to:

    • miss appointments
    • forget birthdays
    • pay bills on time

    Deficits in prospective memory included issues with recalling whether they had completed a task, such as locking the car or switching off the stove or forgetting where they put things.

    Memory Loss Occurs within "Healthy" Drinking Guidelines

    The researchers of the aforementioned study also found a significant increase in reported memory problems even if participants followed "healthy" drinking guidelines. These participants claimed to drink between 10 and 25 units each week, which is within the limits suggested by U.K. government.

    Why Does Alcohol Use Causes Memory Loss?

    Alcohol does indeed affect memory. It hinders the ability of your brain to transfer information from prospective memory to long-term storage. This affects both short- and long-term memory because you simply can't remember things you don't want to forget, such as appointments for work and birthdays. Frequently, you can notice these cognitive difficulties while the person is intoxicated.

    If you are a chronic heavy drinker, you can damage a brain structure called the hippocampus. It is critical to memory and learning, and heavy drinking can cause it to shrink.

    Overcome Prospective Memory Impairment with Future Event Stimulation

    Future event simulation (FES) might be helpful to improve your prospective memory if you have problematic drinking patterns, according to a study of 19 heavy drinkers published in Psychopharmacology.


    FES is a memory technique involving strategies such as making linked and indexed lists.

    The results show FES helped participants remember event-based tasks, but not time-based tasks. The control group did, however, show improvement on time-based tasks after FES.


    Ling, et al. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research: Effects of alcohol on subjective ratings of prospective and everyday memory deficits. (2003).

    Platt, et al. Psychopharmacology: Prospective memory impairments in heavy social drinkers are partially overcome by future event simulation. (2016)

    Science Daily: Heavy, Chronic Drinking Can Cause Significant Hippicapal Tissue Loss

    Continue Reading