With Aging, alcohol abuse continues to be common while other drug abuse declines. Yet because alcohol is considered socially acceptable, many people do not recognize its role in causing memory loss.
Early symptoms of Alcoholism
- Do you drink every day?
- Has anyone ever told you that you drink too much?
- Do you tell family or friends that you drink less than you really do?
- Do you have gaps in recent memory, especially after drinking heavily?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, and you suffer from memory loss, then alcohol becomes the prime suspect. During the aging process, the brain becomes much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol.
Tolerance and Withdrawal: Signs of Addiction
Tolerance means taking larger and larger amounts to produce the same pleasurable effects. Mary O’Brien was tolerant to the effects of four shots of whiskey every evening. However, this amount hadn’t changed for decades, and she wasn’t trying to increase her intake to get the same effect.
Alcohol withdrawal causes severe tremor, anxiety, sleeplessness, and occasionally hallucinations, together with severe craving for alcohol. Many alcoholics are terrified of reexperiencing these withdrawal symptoms and try to avoid them by never staying sober. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms require aggressive treatment, including hospitalization. Over the long term, many people benefit by joining Alcoholics Anonymous.
“If you’re depressed and also drink alcohol, your memory gets double-whammied. “
Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage
Moderate to high-volume alcohol consumption can affect your memory. But why some people are more vulnerable than others remains a bit of a mystery. Genetic factors can play an important role; people from a few Native American tribes are so genetically sensitive to alcohol that they can lose control and become violent after only one or two drinks. Clearly, psychological and social influences are also important.
More puzzling is alcohol’s range of effects within the brain. Some people blithely consume vast quantities with no problems at all, some develop memory loss, others develop tremor and poor coordination because of damage to the cerebellum— a walnut-shaped structure in the lower, back part of the brain— and still others experience hallucinations.
Caffeine dilates the blood vessels and increases blood flow in the brain, which may explain why it seems to improve cognitive performance, at least in low doses. Caffeine also increases arousal and speeds up communication among nerve cells in the brain. This increase in alertness, a sense of being sharper, is what leads to better performance on cognitive tests, including tests of memory. But high doses can lead to adverse effects, including tolerance and even withdrawal, as any heavy user can testify.
On average, one cup of coffee contains the same amount of caffeine as three cups of tea. Caffeine is most commonly used to wake up in the morning, but some people drink coffee as a way to reduce stress. High doses of caffeine can lead to anxiety, jitteriness, and tremor of the hands. In other words, instead of reducing stress, caffeine can increase the sensation of being wired, resulting in difficulty concentrating and consequent memory loss.
Several illegal drugs— including marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin— can damage brain functions, including memory. As with alcohol, the aging brain shows heightened sensitivity to most drugs of abuse, increasing the risk of memory loss.
Marijuana usually gives rise to a feeling of mild euphoria and a sensation of distance from the world that lies around the user. Although tolerance and withdrawal are milder than with alcohol, brain concentrations of cannabinoids, the active chemicals in marijuana, can reach astronomical levels.
Effects of Marijuana
- Interferes with acetylcholine production and thus lowers the level of this neurotransmitter that is important for attention and memory.
- High levels of cannabinoids in the brain lead to fluctuations in mental faculties, lethargy, and poor concentration, with inability to register new information and consequent memory loss.
“People who quit using marijuana usually regain most of their cognitive abilities.“