Forgotten your New Year’s Resolution? This might be why…

With the New Year already two weeks in, many of us myself included may have given up on our New Year’s resolutions. However, for those who intend to give up or cut down on excessive alcohol or cigarette intake it may just be a case of forgetting to give up altogether.  

In Western society the two most commonly used drugs are tobacco and alcohol. However, statistics have shown there is a decline in the percentage of the population who smoke and drink compared to 1974.  Don’t get too excited just yet.

Excessive alcohol consumption alongside smoking can actually have an effect on memory. Research has shown on their own smoking and drinking alcohol can contribute to health issues but a combination of the two can have double the effect. The two substances can work synergistically. In fact an increase of 5 to 20 cigarettes a day can be more harmful for a drinker than a non-drinker and may even increase the risk of oesophageal cancer.

One factor which has been shown to be affected by smoking and alcohol is prospective memory. The part of the memory associated with remembering to carry out a task or remembering to attend an event. Prospective is contrasted with retrospective memory but the two fit together perfectly. So, retrospective memory may involve the attendance of event and when it is to take place while prospective memory is actually remembering to attend the event itself. Sounds clever, right? Except alcohol can damage our prospective memory.

In one study, individuals who drank alcohol excessively and also smoked had greater deficits in time based prospective memory compared to those who singly drank alcohol or singly smoked cigarettes. Therefore, suggesting a synergistic interaction between tobacco cigarettes and alcohol. A further study also looked at the effect of binge drinking on prospective memory. Participants were asked to carry out tasks in the trial, one of which was to call the garage at a specified time. Binge drinkers were shown to remember to carry out less tasks than individuals who didn’t binge drink. A common social event, binge drinking has become a familiar problem amongst young adults in the UK. Individuals who binge drink have greater difficulty in completing tasks which involve the frontal lobe area of the brain including working memory. It is not fully understood why this happens but one suggestion is the lack of success in time based tasks may suggest an underlying frontal lobe dysfunction.


Image result for human brain diagram
The Human Brain. The frontal lobe is the region associated with prospective memory.  Diagram by Sebastian023.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license


Forgetting to take medication, meet with friends or forgetting to fill in an important form are tasks linked to prospective memory.  Activities such as these can not only be affected by alcohol consumption but also by smoking. Regular smoking has illustrated an impairment in the prospective memories of individuals who smoke.

Now we know the two are bad on their own but both together equals double trouble. The effect on the prospective memory is intensified by smoking and drinking together. In fact smoking has been shown to worsen the effect in those who drink excessively. Damage to the brain is more likely to occur in drinkers who also smoke compared to individuals who only drink alcohol. Memory issues are prevalent in people who smoke and drink and they also have greater difficulty with completing problem solving tasks. A region of the brain which is vital for memory, the frontal lobe, has been shown to be thinner in such individuals.

The research highlighted here emphasises the effect smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol can have on the brain particularly our prospective memory. Maybe this year you decided to try dry January, if so and you smoke it may also be worth trying to give that up too. Good luck!


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