By Mel Pohl, MD, DFASAM
In recent headlines, there has been debate revolving around the effects alcohol has on a person’s cognitive ability. There is no doubt that alcohol can be damaging to a person’s overall health but it can also alter brain function and have both short and long-term effects.
Believe it or not, moderate drinkers can experience memory impairment, reckless behaviors, impaired decision-making, and even in severe cases, blackouts. For heavy to chronic drinkers, they can experience serious illnesses like the loss of visuospatial abilities, liver damage, loss of attention span, memory loss, and more.
There has been confusion around two phenomena associated with excessive drinking: “passing out” and “blacking out” after and during alcohol consumption.
Passing out is the loss of consciousness, when a person is unable to be awakened. This is usually caused when the blood flow to the brain is decreased, resulting in low oxygen levels, tiredness, and temporary loss of consciousness. Passing out can be caused by respiratory and circulatory depression, resulting in this decreased oxygen to the brain.
Blacking out is temporary memory loss, meaning the inability to remember what is happening. This happens when the brain loses the ability to develop and retain new memories due to intoxication, yet an individual still can have mobility. Blacking out is the equivalent of “turning off the mind’s tape recorder” so that no memory or spotty memory is recorded. During a blackout, a person can do awful things and simply not remember them – and people around would not realize the person is in a blackout. For example, not remembering how the night ended, how you got home, or what you said or did are common occurrences with blackouts.
Regardless, passing out and blacking out are both dangerous to a person’s health as they both are the origin of harmful effects to the brain.
If you notice that someone is suffering from intoxication, it is highly encouraged to contact local emergency personnel, like the local fire department, law enforcement, or call 911. You could be saving more than just one life.
If this is a reoccurring issue and you suspect alcoholism, there are resources that provide confidential and immediate help:
Las Vegas Recovery Center: (888) 224-5513
Addiction and Alcohol Hotline: (844) 244-3171
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255