Nervous System

How can heavy drinking and smoking affect your memory?
Answered by Science Channel
  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. Alcohol abuse can destroy brain tissue; information doesn't get absorbed easily into long-term memory, so learning takes longer. In addition, excessive drinking often causes disorientation or blackouts, periods of amnesia in which memories are prevented from forming. Smoking affects the brain differently than heavy drinking. As a result of continuous smoke inhalation, less oxygen reaches the brain, causing confusion and memory loss. Studies show that smokers score lower on standardized memory tests than nonsmokers.

    Stress also is tied to addiction and to memory loss of its own. So for some people, managing overuse of alcohol and tobacco also boils down to managing stress. Stressors such as work or unemployment, financial strain, child-care issues and interpersonal conflicts can increase likelihood of developing bad habits such as overeating, smoking and drinking too much. Many women report that stress makes it harder to quit smoking. Evidence now shows that stress not only affects some memory functions in our brains, but that it can disrupt chemical functions that normally would help with our self-control and decision making [Yale Stress Center].

    Although moderate stress can increase your adrenaline levels and keep you focused and alert, ongoing stress is detrimental. Stress releases glucocorticoid hormones, which aid brain function. But prolonged high levels of glucocorticoids can harm the hippocampus, the section of the brain responsible for explicit memories like facts and events. For example, you might not remember where you placed your car keys. Overexposure to glucocorticoids during a high-stress period can actually shrink the hippocampus, permanently inhibiting your ability to concentrate and access long-term memories. A Yale University professor isolated an enzyme that works on the neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Stress produces an abundance of these enzymes that break down the neurons, damaging the brain's emotional and impulse controls, along with the ability to think analytically [source: Boston].

    The good news is that unless you have chronic stress or anxiety, your brain can recover if you put a stop to the stress. Unfortunately, the long-term effects of smoking on the brain aren't necessarily reversible; quitting only halts any further damage [source: NeuroLogic].

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