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Can alcohol, drugs and cigarettes affect memory?

We all know that booze, cigarettes, drugs and a bad diet aren’t good for our health, but did you know they can affect memory, too?

Everyone has bad habits, but when it comes to boosting brain health and preventing memory loss, there are certain lifestyle behaviours which you’d be wise to avoid. We’re not saying it’s easy to give them up, but your brain and memory could certainly thank you for it in the long term…


Long-term smoking thins the brain’s cortex, which can lead to memory loss, according to a study from McGill University in the US. The cortex is the outer layer of the brain, and while it naturally thins as you age, if you smoke the thinning speeds up, meaning your brain ages more quickly.

The study investigated 500 patients with an average age of 73 and asked about smoking habits. Those who had smoked had thinner cortexes than those who did not. Interestingly, people who used to smoke but then gave up, were able to partially recover some thickness in their cortexes. So quitting now is better than not quitting at all…

Excessive alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis can affect your memory. In fact, Korsakoff Syndrome is a type of dementia that’s directly linked to alcohol use. A study from the University of Exeter medical school found that a history of problem drinking (known as alcohol use disorders or AUDs) in early life, could directly impact on your memory.

Researchers looked at middle-aged people and their drinking habits and asked them four questions; had they ever felt they should cut down on their drinking, had people annoyed them by criticising their drinking, had they ever felt bad or guilty about their drinking, and had they ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady nerves or get rid of a hangover. These are classic signs of an AUD, and those who had one were more likely to get memory problems later on in life.


Regularly taking recreational drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine can lead to memory problems and cognitive problems, including verbal and spatial exercises. Research published in 2010 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology discovered links between memory problems and drug use. What’s more, cannabis use can affect both your long-term and short-term memory.


While staying active and exercising regularly has been linked to better memory health, doing too little and, more surprisingly, doing too much can negatively affect your memory.
In the first instance, it makes sense that too little exercise could affect brain health. If you don’t do any exercise, you’re more likely to be overweight, and being overweight can raise your risk of vascular dementia.

However, a 2009 study on women who did long-term strenuous activity such as marathons, swimming laps and long-distance cycling found they were more likely to see a decline in cognitive ability, the most pronounced losses being in memory, recall and attention. The key, it seems, is finding a balance between the two levels of exercise.

Fatty foods

Eating too many fatty foods, or more specifically, too much junk food, can affect your memory. A study from the University of California found a diet high in trans fats (a type of fat that is used to preserve food) could not only lead to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but could also increase your risk of memory problems. Trans fats are most commonly found in pies, cakes, pastries and fast food.

On the other hand, not eating enough fatty food can also affect your memory. Your brain is made up of two thirds fat, so it’s vital to get some fat in your diet in order for it to function, but they need to be the right kind of fat. This means foods that are high in vitamin-rich fats, such as avocado, which contains vitamin E, oily fish, which contains brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, and nuts and seeds, which contain vitamin E, zinc and selenium – all linked to brain health. Get more tips on boosting your memory through diet here.

Not sleeping enough

If you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, or staying up all night to catch up on your Netflix programmes, you may be affecting your memory. Poor sleep quality and a lack of sleep can cause memories to get stuck in short-term memory, and not get converted into long-term memories, according to research from the University of California, Berkeley. Find out why sleep affects memory loss here.