How does drinking alcohol affect your memory?


There are lots of guidelines about what is a safe alcohol drinking limit. However, they vary greatly from one country to another. Which guidelines should we use to be able to enjoy alcohol without letting it have a negative impact on our memory?

The first thing to note when looking at alcohol studies is to understand how they are measured. Instead of glasses or ounces, alcohol consumption is listed in units. 1 unit of alcohol is 10 ml or 8 grams. Essentially, that’s about half a glass of beer or half a glass of wine

What’s interesting is that the United States guidelines recommend 24.5 units of alcohol per week for men while the U.K guidelines recommend only 14 units (or 5 glasses of wine per week). If both organizations are looking at the research, then why such a large difference? Lots of speculations around this one!

In fact, looking across the world, the United States and Chile have some of the highest recommendations for alcohol consumption whereas countries like Australia and Sweeden are on the other end of the spectrum.

In one of the longest studies to date, lasting 30 years, the authors looked at what happens with drinking alcohol regularly to not only brain function but also to brain structure.

What the authors discovered was that the highest alcohol use versus none was associated with more atrophy of the hippocampus. The hippocampus, remember, is important in memory.

In addition, the authors also found that the highest alcohol use versus none was linked with worse functional outcomes. Specifically, they had a faster decline in word recall. They also saw no evidence that light drinkers were somehow protected from memory effects versus those who never drank.

The bottom line here is that light drinking does not have a protective effect on memory based on this study. Also, the U.K. limits of safe drinking are probably better to follow then the U.S. recommendations. Lastly, cutting back on alcohol can be an important part of our healthy lifestyle and reducing the risk of memory issues later in life.


Topiwala, A., et al. (2017). “Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: longitudinal cohort study.” BMJ 357: j2353.


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