Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain – When an individual drinks alcohol beyond moderate levels, it can have harmful effects on the brain and body – both short-term and permanent. Some of those effects, such as slurred speech and impaired memory can be obvious, while others, like long-term cellular damage, however, may not be quite as clear.
According to research from 2008, excessive drinking over a prolonged period appears to shrink brain volume. The study revealed that people who had greater than 14 drinks per week over a 20-year period had 1.6% smaller brains than those who did not drink. In general, the association was slightly more pronounced among women than men.
Excessive drinking also may accelerate memory loss in early old age, at least among males, according to a 2014 study. Men in the study who consumed more than two and a half drinks a day exhibited signs of cognitive decline as much as six years earlier than those who did not drink, had quit drinking or were light-moderate drinkers.
Increasing Tolerance and Reduced Pleasure
People who regularly consume alcohol may also find that drinking doesn’t have the same effect on them as in the past, due to the development of tolerance. Also, the reward system can lose some of its normal functioning, and people don’t feel as good as they once did after consuming their usual amount of alcohol.
These long-term effects of alcohol on the brain can cause some people to modify their behaviors around alcohol, becoming more likely to seek it and to depend upon it to deal with negative thoughts and feelings. In other words, instead of drinking to feel good, people begin to consume alcohol chronically to avoid feeling bad.
This pattern can result in an increasing amount of alcohol consumption, which can lead to more brain damage, as well as harm to the rest of the body. Alcohol destroys brain cells and damages cellular networks, and some of this damage may be irreversible.
Also, there are several brain disorders related to chronic alcohol abuse. For instance, research has found that up to 80% of long-term alcohol users have a thiamine (B1) deficiency, and some in this group will develop a severe brain dementia-type disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), also known as “wet brain.” This condition, which causes confusion and cognitive and memory impairments, can occur because alcohol use impairs a person’s absorption of B1, and interferes with the enzyme that modifies it into a usable form in the body.
Other Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Brain damage can also be related to cirrhosis of the liver, another common complication of chronic drinking. After reducing or discontinuing alcohol intake, damaged regions of the brain can start to show activity again on brain scans. But improvement may only come after months of complete abstinence and allowing the brain time to repair itself.
And unlike the moderate drinker, an individual who drinks excessively over a prolonged period may incur deficits in brain function that persist even upon attainment of sobriety. Moreover, cognitive impairments that arise are the result of brain damage due to prior drinking, not a current habit.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, most chronic, heavy alcohol users will suffer from a mild to moderate impairment of mental functioning as well as some brain shrinkage. The most common long-term effects of alcohol on the brain are associated with the ability to think abstractly and visuospatial skills.
Alcohol-related damage to the brain and body can even be fatal – in another recent study, people who routinely consumed 10 or more drinks per week had shorter life expectancies (up to two years) than those who had less than five drinks per week. For those who consumed 18 drinks or more per week, that number rose to 4-5 years. Study researchers also noticed that alcohol use was associated with a variety of cardiovascular problems, including stroke.
Recovery from Alcohol Abuse
Fortunately, some types of cognitive impairment can be reversed through long-term abstinence from alcohol. Research shows that those who have recently undergone a medical detox experience mild but significant improvement in specific cognitive abilities, particularly those associated with short-term memory, problem-solving skills, and visuospatial tasks.
After a period of continuous abstinence, over perhaps several months to a year, a person in recovery can continue to improve cognitive skills, such as attention span, visuospatial abilities, and working memory. Research shows that brain volume can also increase with long-term abstinence.
Persons who are abusing or are dependent on alcohol are highly encouraged to seek treatment before cognitive impairments, and other health problems become irreversible. Our center offers an integrated, evidence-based approach to addiction recovery that includes therapy, counseling, and group support – all essential services that are delivered by caring medical personnel with expertise in addiction.
Contact us today to find out how we can help you restore your sanity and get on the path to recovery!