Memory Troubles? Remember to Drink Less

Heavy drinking diminishes daily recall

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MONDAY, June 16, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- You forgot to send Mom a birthday card, and then missed your dentist appointment. Memory lapses linked to growing older, right?

Maybe not, says a new study that says the source of this type of forgetfulness may be alcohol.

The study, which appears in the June issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found heavy users of alcohol had more problems with daily memory tasks, such as remembering to return a phone call or send a birthday card, than people who drank very little.

"Heavy users of alcohol reported making consistently more errors than people who did not drink or drank only small amounts of alcohol," says study author Jonathan Ling, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Teesside in Great Britain.

"Our results also indicate that even moderate levels of drinking have an impact on cognitive function," Ling adds. "People drinking 10 to 24 units per week performed significantly worse than participants who drank little or no alcohol on a measure of long-term prospective memory."

One glass of wine is equivalent to a unit of alcohol.

While past research has shown that heavy alcohol use damages retrospective memory -- which includes learning and retrieving information -- Ling and his colleagues wanted to know if alcohol had any effect on day-to-day or prospective memory. Prospective memory includes things such as remembering to pay your bills on time or go to a friend's party. It also includes aspects such as remembering if you've locked the front door, or if you've already told someone a particular story.

To assess alcohol's affect on prospective memory, the researchers had 763 study volunteers complete two Internet-based questionnaires on memory.

Four hundred and sixty-five participants were female and 298 were male. Twenty percent said they drank no alcohol. Almost 42 percent drank between one and nine units of alcohol per week. Nearly 30 percent consumed between 10 and 25 units per week and 8 percent regularly drank more than 25 units of alcohol weekly.

Heavy drinking was defined as more than 25 units per week. Moderate drinking was defined as 10 to 24 drinks per week and light drinking was one to nine drinks per week.

"Alcohol consumption has a significant effect on memory," Ling concludes. "A typical heavy user of alcohol is likely to report 31.16 percent more problems with long-term aspects of prospective memory than someone who does not drink, and to report 23.68 percent more problems than individuals who say they drink only small amounts of alcohol."

Ling says the researchers weren't able to determine the cause of the memory problems. The study also didn't address whether the changes in memory were permanent or would disappear if people stopped drinking.

"It's not surprising that alcohol would interfere with people's daily memory," says Dr. Francis Hayden, associate director of the division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City, who adds that this study fills a gap of knowledge on alcohol and memory.

"Someone drinking more than 21 drinks per week for women and 28 for men should know that they may have significant cognitive impairment from that and they should probably cut down," he says.

Should people who have a nightly glass of wine be concerned? Probably not, says Hayden.

"There's no indictment of light drinking [in this study]," he says.

More information

To learn more about alcohol abuse, its effects and how to get help, visit the American Psychological Association. Not sure if you're drinking too much? Take this quiz at AlcoholScreening.org.

SOURCES: Jonathan Ling, Ph.D., senior lecturer, psychology, University of Teesside, Middlesbrough, Great Britain; Francis Hayden, M.D., associate director, division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, Bellevue Hospital Center, and clinical assistant professor, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; June 2003 Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
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