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Alcohol Use And Memory Problems In Adults

Alcohol Use And Memory Problems In Adults

Alcohol use remains a prevalent aspect of both the United States and the global population’s lifestyle. In the United States, it’s deeply ingrained in social and cultural contexts, with a significant portion of the population engaging in varying levels of alcohol consumption.

Memory exploration has extensively examined the impact of alcohol across short- and long-term measures of objective memory. However, more attention needs to be given to understanding its influence on subjective memory in everyday life. 

Assessing memory in daily life often involves examining subjective memory, which captures an individual’s perceptions of their memory functioning. These perceptions are influenced by exposure to memory problems and concerns about memory decline. 

Studies show a correlation between poorer subjective memory and psychological distress, including depressive symptoms. While the link between subjective and objective memory is weakly positive, changes in subjective memory perceptions can reflect actual memory problems. 

Individuals reporting poorer subjective memory often exhibit higher levels of psychological distress, signifying a potential interplay between cognitive perceptions and emotional states. This association underscores the intricate relationship between mental health and one’s subjective evaluation of memory functioning.

Research suggests that subjective memory impairment is associated with a higher risk of faster cognitive decline and future cognitive impairment. Exploring the connection between alcohol use and subjective memory is crucial, as it may impact both psychological well-being and cognitive outcomes.

This study takes on the challenge of understanding daily alcohol use and its connections with both prospective (forgetting an intended task) and retrospective (forgetting something learned in the past) memory lapses among middle-aged and older adults. 

It explains the relationship between daily alcohol use and memory lapses in middle-aged and older adults. Memory is a crucial aspect of cognitive function, and understanding how alcohol consumption may impact both prospective and retrospective memory can have significant implications.


The data for this analysis is derived from a subset of participants in two Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) survey cohorts, selected at random for a daily diary project (n=1731). MIDUS is a cohort-sequential longitudinal study focusing on the health and well-being of American adults. Over eight consecutive days in either 2012–2014 (cohort 1) or 2017–2019 (cohort 2), participants completed brief telephone interviews, receiving $25 for their involvement. 

The data collection period was limited to 8 days to minimize participant burden, with interviews conducted in the afternoon/evening. Respondents reported alcohol use and memory lapses since approximately the previous day. 

The study’s analytic sample comprises 53% of participants (n=925) who reported alcohol consumption during the 8 days (Mean Age=55 years; range: 25–90). These participants completed an average of 7.8 out of the 8 days of interviews, resulting in 7209 interviews. Those included were more likely to be White, male, and hold a higher attained degree compared to excluded participants (p<0.001 for all).

The study incorporated several covariates to comprehensively examine the connection between alcohol use and memory lapses in middle-aged and older adults. Here’s an overview of the covariates and their significance:

Age: Older age predicts reporting more memory lapses, and the study utilized mean-centered age to better understand its influence on memory.

Perceived Memory and Depression: Poorer perceived memory is linked to depressive symptomology. Depression, assessed using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview Short Form, is a crucial covariate in exploring memory lapses.

Demographic Factors: Unhealthy drinking among older adults is associated with being male, White, having higher education, and being unmarried. Covariates include sex, race, marital status, and education, offering insight into how these factors interact with alcohol use and memory lapses.

Education: Education level, ranging from less than a high school degree to graduate school, serves as a key covariate, recognizing the role of educational background in cognitive studies.

Cohort Differences: Cohort 2, being older and having poorer overall cognitive functioning, was distinguished from Cohort 1. These differences were acknowledged and considered in the analysis.

Cognitive Functioning: Overall cognitive functioning, assessed through a standardized composite score from the Brief Test of Alcohol Cognition by Telephone, provides a holistic evaluation of cognitive abilities beyond memory lapses.

Considering and accounting for these covariates is crucial for isolating the specific impact of daily alcohol use on memory lapses. This approach enhances the study’s validity, enabling researchers to draw more accurate conclusions about the intricate relationship between alcohol consumption and cognitive function in middle-aged and older adults.


Analyzing the data through multilevel models yielded insightful findings. Within individuals, instances of heavier-than-usual alcohol use (exceeding one’s daily average number of drinks) were linked to higher odds of reporting any memory lapses, with an odds ratio (OR) of 1.06 and a 95% confidence interval (CI) ranging from 1.01 to 1.12.

Notably, these associations were not significant at the between-person level, where the odds ratio was 1.07 with a 95% CI of 0.99 to 1.16. When distinguishing between retrospective and prospective lapses, alcohol use demonstrated an association solely with prospective lapses, and this association was observed only at the between-person level, with an OR of 1.10 and a 95% CI spanning from 1.01 to 1.19. 

Intriguingly, alcohol use showed no significant association with reported irritation or interference stemming from memory lapses (p>0.05). These results shed light on the differential impact of alcohol use on various facets of memory lapses within and between individuals, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of this complex relationship.

Final Thoughts

The findings in this study offer valuable insights into the relationship between alcohol use and memory lapses among middle-aged and older adults. The within-individual analysis revealed a noteworthy association between heavier-than-usual alcohol use and increased odds of reporting any memory lapses, emphasizing the potential impact of acute changes in alcohol consumption on cognitive experiences.

Interestingly, these associations did not hold at the between-person level, suggesting that individual variations play a crucial role in how alcohol influences memory perceptions.

Furthermore, the distinction between retrospective and prospective lapses provided additional depth to the findings. Alcohol use showed a specific association with prospective lapses, indicating a potential influence on forgetting intended tasks rather than recalling past information. 

Notably, this association was observed only at the between-person level, highlighting the importance of considering individual differences in alcohol consumption patterns. It’s also noteworthy that despite these associations, alcohol use did not demonstrate a significant link to reported irritation or interference from memory lapses. 

This suggests a complex interplay between alcohol and subjective experiences of memory lapses, where certain aspects of memory may be more susceptible to alcohol-related effects than others.

In essence, this study underscores the need for understanding how alcohol use impacts memory functioning, considering both within-individual variations and between-person differences. 

The findings contribute to the broader conversation on the intersection of alcohol consumption and cognitive outcomes, offering valuable insights for future research and potential implications for psychological and cognitive well-being in middle-aged and older adults.

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