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A Timeline for the Restoration of Cognitive Abilities after Quitting Alcohol

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Here’s some excellent news:

In virtually all cases, no matter how severely alcohol-dulled you feel now, a few years of abstinence will almost completely reverse this cognitive damage.

Incredible isn’t it?

Though chronic alcohol abuse kills brain cells and shrinks brain volume your amazing body can heal itself and you can think as clearly as you once did – and all your brain needs is time to repair and an end to the everyday destruction of alcoholism.

Something to look forward to... !

OK, so to stay motivated as you work through recovery, remember that though it’s rarely easy, if you can quit and stay quit your brain can recover enormously and you can look forward to retaining the intellectual capacities of your pre-alcohol years.

Unfortunately, as an exception to the brain’s general restorative abilities, people who develop wet brain don't recover in this way. If you drink, make sure you get adequate thiamine to prevent this irreversible disease.

A Timeline for Cognitive Recovery after Abstinence

Researchers at Neurobehavioral Research Inc developed a timeline for cognitive recovery by comparing long-term abstinent alcoholics to age-equivalent control subjects.1

At 2 Weeks of Abstinence

The average recovering alcoholic experiences:

  • Increased confusion
  • Increased irritability
  • Distractibility
  • A decreased ability to attend and concentrate
  • Slower reaction times
  • A decreased ability to use verbal abstract reasoning
  • Decreased verbal short-term memory
  • Impaired verbal learning abilities
  • Impaired mental flexibility
  • Impaired visual-spatial abilities
  • Decreased non-verbal short-term memory

recovering alcoholics experience substantial and varied thinking deficits at 2 weeks into recovery. These thinking problems help to explain high relapse rates during the first period of abstinence and underscore the need for effective compensatory coping strategies (such as those you would learn in an addiction treatment program).

By 2 Months

  • By 60 days into recovery, distractibility, confusion and irritability have disappeared, but memory problems, concentration, learning, mental flexibility, abstract reasoning and visual-spatial deficits remain.

So by 2 months you can expect to feel quite a bit calmer and more clear-headed, but you will still suffer from significant deficits and you will still need to rely heavily on compensatory coping strategies that reduce your need to make significant or risky decisions.

By 5 Years

From 2 months to 5 years of abstinence people make incredible cognitive gains and get very close to a full restoration of normal functioning.

By 5 years, the average alcoholic may still experience:

  • Problems with non-verbal abstract reasoning and non-verbal short term memory
  • Diminished mental flexibility
  • Diminished visual-spatial abilities

By 5 years, all other cognitive functions have returned to a normal level state.

By 7 Years

By 7 years the average recovering alcoholic has made a nearly complete recovery. However, diminished visual-spatial abilities persist. These seem irreversible.2

You Can Recover!

So even though you may have spent years working to destroy brain cells, your brain can still heal, so long as it’s given the opportunity to do so.

Take-Home Message

  1. It’s never too late.
  2. You can someday think as clearly as you used to.
  3. The significant cognitive deficits seen in early recovery make quitting very difficult, and you give yourself a much better chance of success by learning compensatory coping strategies that make-up for your diminished abilities.
References
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Page last updated 29/02/2016

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