The detrimental health effects that can occur from drinking and smoking, caused by alcohol and tobacco, are now well known. But beyond producing ailments such as cirrhosis of the liver and lung cancer, overindulgence in these common substances can permanently damage your ability to remember everyday life.
You may feel like the life of the party after a few drinks, but you may be surprised to learn that having a few beers or glasses of wine several times a week can begin to interfere with your ability to remember.
A rare binge will probably not cause permanent memory problems, but habitually abusing alcohol can cause real damage. In fact, short-term memory loss is one of the hallmarks of alcoholism. Alcohol destroys brain tissue and interferes with the process of absorbing information so that it never enters long-term memory. Prolonged alcohol abuse causes permanent damage to the memory system. Short-term memory loss is often the first indicator of alcohol-related neurological damage. This type of memory loss means a person has difficulty remembering new information, so the learning process takes longer. It also reduces a person's higher-level thinking (the ability to think in abstract terms). Excessive drinking changes the underlying brain chemistry that controls ability and skills. People who habitually drink too much may also experience blackouts -- periods of amnesia that occur when the amount of alcohol consumed prevents the formation of memories in the brain. If untreated, chronic alcoholics may develop a confused state of thinking that can lead to severe amnesia and disorientation.
So if a better memory is your goal, you would do well to examine your alcohol consumption patterns. And if you regularly have more than one (if you're a woman) or two (if you're a man) drinks a day or occasionally consume several drinks in a sitting, you may want to cut back to protect your thinking cap. If you experience difficulty moderating your drinking on your own, look into local programs for problem drinkers (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) or contact a mental health professional who specializes in treating substance abuse problems.
While smoking a cigarette may make you feel momentarily energized, smoking can actually lower the amount of oxygen that reaches your brain, thereby affecting your memory. In fact, studies have found that smokers score lower on memory tests than nonsmokers, and smokers who average more than a pack a day appear to have an especially hard time recalling names and faces. Some research suggests that smoking can slow your memory performance about as much as having a couple of drinks. Smoking a pack a day exposes you to 1,000 micrograms of toluene (among other things), which is highly toxic and can cause confusion and memory loss.
On the next page, learn about dietary supplements and how they can affect memory.