What Are Some Effects of Alcohol on Critical Thinking? (And Your Brain)

Many people are familiar with the short-term effects of alcohol on the brain. A night of heavy drinking can inhibit decision-making, leading to risky behavior and sometimes embarrassment. But what about the lasting mental effects of alcohol? Long-term changes in the brain may not be as noticeable, but that does not mean they are not significant. A great deal of research has explored the relationship between alcohol abuse and critical thinking. You may feel you are safe from the damaging effects as long as you avoid drinking heavily, but even moderate drinking may link with lowered cognitive functioning. 

However, it is possible to minimize the harm caused by alcohol abuse, and we can guide you toward the help that is right for you. Call us today at 405-583-4390 for more information on alcohol abuse resources in your area.  


The health risks associated with drinking are varied, but a great deal of research has pointed to mental decline as one significant consequence. Understanding the dangers of heavy and moderate drinking can help you prevent any further harm.

Alcohol and Cognitive Function

Many individuals start drinking alcohol to feel good. Moderate drinking can make some people feel happier, less stressed, and more friendly. Brain scans have revealed that these positive feelings are due to the release of endorphins, also known as “pleasure hormones.” But as people begin to drink more regularly, they may find that they now drink not necessarily to feel good, but rather to avoid feeling bad. This change is due to the alterations that alcohol makes to their brains.  

Regular drinkers may notice that, after a while, alcohol no longer affects them the way it once did. This occurs when a person has built up a tolerance. The brain’s reward system can become worn out from frequent stimulation and lose some of its normal functioning. So, people with tolerance to alcohol might not feel as good as they once did after drinking the same amount.

The changes alcohol makes to a person’s brain can change their behavior surrounding alcohol as well. They may seek drinks much more frequently and rely on it to deal with negative feelings. 

Tolerance typically leads to higher levels of alcohol consumption, which can harm the body and brain in various ways. The effects of alcohol on the brain include damage to cells and cellular networks, and doctors are still not sure to what extent these cells can regrow. 

“Wet Brain” 

Excessive drinking can link to an increase in the risk of dementia. You might have heard the term “wet brain” to describe the harmful effects of alcohol on the brain. “Wet brain” is an informal name for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a type of dementia caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 in the brain. Alcohol can interfere with the body’s absorption of vitamin B1. It can also inhibit the enzyme that converts vitamin B1 into a form that the body can use. 

Heavy drinking can also accelerate memory loss in early old age. In a 2014 study, participants who had more than 2.5 drinks a day showed signs of cognitive decline up to six years earlier than those who did not drink, were former drinkers or were moderate drinkers. 

Alcohol and Brain Shrinkage

What exactly does alcohol do to your brain to hinder cognitive functioning? Numerous studies have suggested that drinking massive amounts of alcohol may lead to brain shrinkage over a long time. Brain volume can measure brain aging. Thus, a decrease in volume may indicate that alcohol ages our brains faster, interfering with some cognitive functions. One such study examined MRI brain scans of people between the ages of 34 and 88. These participants were in five categories:

  • Non-drinkers
  • Former drinkers
  • Low drinkers
  • Moderate drinkers
  • High drinkers

People who had more than 14 drinks per week (high drinkers) had an average reduction in brain volume of 1.6% compared to people who did not drink. For every increase in the drinking category (e.g., low drinkers to moderate drinkers), brain volume decreased by 0.25%. 

This effect was slightly larger in women than in men. Heavy alcohol consumption appeared to have the most significant negative impact on women in their 70s in brain volume. Furthermore, the data suggested that those who had a steady 12-year history of heavy drinking had lower brain volume than those who had begun drinking heavily within the 12 years during which the study took place. This suggests that any potential damage may continue to increase with time.  

If you are suffering from alcohol addiction, then it is important to remember that you are not alone. Contact us today if you are ready to learn about all of your options for alcohol addiction treatment. Even if you are just calling to ask about a loved one you are concerned for. We are here to help.

The Risks of Moderate Drinking

It may seem evident that heavy drinking can negatively impact your brain health. We often hear that too much of anything can be harmful. But in fact, even moderate drinking may have adverse effects on your brain. Moderate drinking is typically one or two drinks per day, with one drink equaling 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer.  

Many studies have suggested that moderate drinking may offer protection against heart disease. Therefore, it may seem that drinking cannot possibly be as harmful as drinking heavily. But according to the research, the positive may not outweigh the negative when it comes to how alcohol affects critical thinking.  

A relatively recent study reinforced the data from earlier studies and confirmed that even moderate drinking might lead to shrinkage in brain areas involved in cognition and learning. 

This long-term study assessed participants over 30 years. In the beginning, all of the participants were healthy, and none were dependent on alcohol. Throughout the study period, they recorded their alcohol intake and took tests to measure their cognitive functioning, including memory, reasoning, and verbal skills. At the end of the study, the researchers took MRI scans of the participants’ brains. 

The researchers found that the amount that people drank was related to the amount of brain shrinkage they sustained. They specifically examined the shrinkage of the hippocampus, the brain’s area associated with memory and reasoning. Moderate drinkers showed three times the shrinkage amount in the hippocampus compared to those who did not drink. The heavy drinkers did show the most shrinkage and most rapid decline in the performance of simple cognitive tasks, but the impact of moderate drinking is still notable. 

How much is too much? 

Given these results, is there a “safe” amount of alcohol you can still enjoy in moderation?  Some research has shown that drinking seven or fewer drinks per week does not appear to have any harmful effects, but drinking eight or fewer per week does—eight drinks per week averages out to about one drink per day, which is still considered moderate.  

While it is generally wise to avoid more than one alcoholic beverage per day, it is also important to remember that the effects of alcohol can differ from person to person. Despite any potential positive effects of moderate drinking, alcohol is still an addictive substance. It can have negative consequences in various ways, even if it does not affect your brain volume.  

How Long Does the Damage Last?

Some more encouraging news is that the type of brain cell damage that research has examined appears to improve within weeks of stopping drinking. Thus, the harm from brain shrinkage can be repaired to an extent. But whether the brain can be fully healed and how long complete repair would take are still uncertain. It may not be enough to cut back on alcohol intake to repair the damage. It may take long-term, total abstinence for the brain to heal.

An important point to remember is that alcohol can have many other adverse effects on the body. The effects of alcohol on the brain can result from different causes besides brain shrinkage. For instance, alcohol consumption links to a higher risk of stroke, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked. Additionally, cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, is a common complication of heavy drinking, leading to a buildup of toxins in the brain, causing brain fog (loss of memory and confusion).

In any case, the damage from alcohol, whether related to the cognitive function or not, can be deadly. In one study, those who had ten or more drinks per week had life expectancies one to two years shorter than those who had five or fewer drinks per week. Life expectancies lowered by four to five years for those who had 18 or more drinks a week. Remember that you do not have to wait for substance abuse to turn into severe addiction to seek treatment with all of these risks in mind.

Do not suffer through the damages alone. We are here to help you through this difficult time. Contact our trained experts today and start living a healthier and happier life.

Minimize the Damage with Help

The reason many people drink is to experience the positive, relaxing effects of alcohol. But we cannot deny the vast array of adverse effects also associated with drinking. More often than not, an increase in alcohol consumption means an increase in the negative effects. Not only do those who drink regularly and heavily have the potential to develop an addiction, but they also risk a variety of health complications, including brain damage.  

Research has shown a strong correlation between regular drinking and lowered brain volume, indicating a mental decline. Even in moderate amounts, alcohol can damage parts of the brain involved in memory, learning, and critical thinking. These effects may take place over an extended period, but the harm adds up. 

Perhaps you’ve noticed a loved one increasing their drinking, or you’re considering cutting back your drinking out of concern for the unseen damage it may be causing. It can be challenging to cut back on drinking when you cannot immediately see the adverse effects. Furthermore, if a person is addicted, they will only have a more challenging time limiting their intake despite knowing the negative consequences.

Fortunately, help is available to anyone struggling with alcohol use, and we can help you discover your best options for addiction treatment or prevention. Call us today at 405-583-4390 to discuss support for alcohol abuse and addiction in your area. 


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