Alcohol Induced Dementia is a Real Thing

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Alcohol is one of America’s most abused substances. And as the name suggests, alcohol-induced dementia is a form of dementia caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Moreover, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking, heavy drinking and other forms of alcohol use disorders are associated with an average of 88,000 deaths each year.

Alcohol is not only responsible for thousands of vehicular accidents every year, but the substance also causes damage to internal organs, especially to the liver and kidneys. Alcohol consumption increases the risk of multiple illnesses, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

Effects of alcohol on the brain

Alcohol is a central ingredient of the American social scene. No party or event is complete without alcoholic beverages. A dry event is usually met with groans as most people have come to associate fun with drinking beer, wine, champagne, and other ‘spirited’ libations.

Advertisements do caution people that alcohol is supposed to be enjoyed responsibly. Because alcohol consumption can cause people to stop thinking clearly, many lose their ability to make healthy choices once they’ve had a drink or two, which makes the whole idea of drinking in moderation and being responsible go out the window. One drink usually leads to another one, and another, until the person becomes completely intoxicated.

Alcohol is associated with a variety of common behavioral changes, such as a lack of control, distracted and irregular perception, and poor decision-making. Consumers of recreational alcohol typically recover from drinking without any long-term complications.

Even the short-term loss of control over normal mental functions, though, may lead to legal or social problems that would likely not occur if alcohol were not involved. Despite all these known negative consequences, the consumption of alcohol continues to maintain such a strong foothold in American culture that life without it is almost impossible to imagine.

dementia patient

What is dementia?

Dementia refers to a collection of symptoms that affect and severely impair memory, thinking, and social abilities. It is different from age-related memory loss and dementia can be caused by many different diseases, alcoholism being just one of them.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in the elderly, but, as mentioned, there are other causes. Some symptoms of dementia are reversible, however, this depends on the cause and other factors.

Common signs and symptoms of dementia:

  • Memory loss, which is usually obvious to a spouse or someone else close to the person
  • Communication difficulties such as finding the right words to express their thoughts
  • Impairment of visual and spatial abilities, such as getting lost while driving
  • Reasoning or problem-solving difficulty
  • Inability to handle complex tasks
  • Planning and organizing difficulties
  • Inability to coordinate movement or motor functions
  • Cognitive decline or changes
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Personality changes
  • Psychological changes
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation

When you observe these signs in a family member or loved one, see a doctor in order to determine whether it is dementia, what is causing it, and whether a treatment plan is available.

Causes of dementia

Dementia is a result of damage to or a loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain. Dementia can affect people differently and cause different symptoms depending on the area of the brain that is affected by the damage.

Progressive dementia refers to types of dementia that gradually worsen and are irreversible. These are as follows:

  • Alzheimer’s disease – where patients have plaque buildup from a protein called beta-amyloid and fibrous tangles made up of tau protein in their brains.
  • Vascular dementia – which is caused by damage to blood vessels supplying blood to the brain.
  • Lewy body dementia (a common type of progressive dementia) – where abnormal balloon-like clumps of protein develop in the brain.
  • Frontotemporal dementia – a category of diseases characterized by nerve cell loss (degeneration) and a loss of the connections of the nerve cells in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes.
  • Mixed dementia – which can be a combination of several causes such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and Lewy body dementia.
  • Huntington’s disease – which is an untreatable genetic mutation leading to the wasting away of specific nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI) – which is usually caused by repetitive head trauma such as what some athletes experience (e.g. football players, boxers, etc.).
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – which is a rare inheritable brain disorder with no known causes.
  • Parkinson’s disease – which can lead some people to develop symptoms of dementia

On the other hand, there are causes of dementia or dementia-like symptoms that may be reversible with treatment. These include:

  • Infections and immune disorders that involve dementia-like symptoms resulting from a fever or other side effects of the immune system’s attempt to fight an infection
  • Endocrine abnormalities and metabolic disorders such as those involving the thyroid, too much or too little calcium or sodium, low blood sugar, or problems with vitamin B12 absorption can lead to patients exhibiting personality changes or dementia-like symptoms
  • Nutritional deficiencies that may be caused by dehydration and inadequate vitamin intake, which is sometimes associated with chronic alcoholism
  • Side effects of certain medications that can lead patients to exhibit dementia-like symptoms.
  • Subdural hematoma or bleeding between the covering and the surface of the brain, which can be caused by a heavy fall
  • Metal or chemical poisoning
  • Brain tumors
  • Anoxia or a condition whereby organ tissues are not receiving sufficient oxygen.
  • Normal-pressure hydrocephalus

Family history, age, and having Down’s syndrome are major and irreversible risk factors in dementia.

However, there are also risk factors that can be controlled such as:

  • Diet and exercise
  • Heavy alcohol dependence or use
  • Lifestyle-related medical conditions such as cardiovascular diseases
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Sleep apnea
  • Vitamin and nutritional deficiencies

The link between alcohol and dementia

The effects of alcohol on the brain cells are already widely known. People who are inebriated exhibit poor judgment, have difficulty making decisions and demonstrate a lack of insight. Longtime alcohol abuse is also linked to nutrition problems that, in turn, affect the brain. For example, nutritional deficiencies can, over time, impact brain health.

Excessive drinking over many years can lead to alcohol-induced or alcoholic dementia (formally defined in DSM 5 as a major neurocognitive illness caused by alcohol), which can cause problems with memory, reading, and other cognitive problems.

Alcohol consumption is one type of dementia that is reversible with early management or treatment. But once alcoholic dementia reaches an advanced stage, it can be difficult or almost impossible to reverse. The reason is that, just like drugs, alcohol kills brain cells at a faster rate than aging alone.

In fact, a study revealed that people who consume five or more bottles of beer or a bottle of wine in one sitting during middle age are three times more likely to develop dementia by age 65 than those who have never engaged in binge drinking.

Alcohol-related brain damage

Dementia associated with alcohol use disorder falls under a condition known as alcohol-related brain damage or ARBD. It has already been established that consuming large amounts of alcohol makes it impossible for neurons to recover, so what happens is that they die.

While this condition can develop in people who are dealing with alcohol use disorder at any age, this disease is more common in middle-aged and older adults. Younger people, those aged 16 to 24, are consuming less alcohol and are, instead, abusing various drugs.

For middle-aged women, ARBD is a particularly concerning health condition since alcohol affects women more than it does men. This is mainly due to biological differences between the sexes in terms of hormones, the distribution of body fat, and their height-weight ratio. Still, men are receiving more ARBD diagnoses than women. This is possibly due to the fact that men consume more alcohol than women throughout their lives, particularly among older adults.

Previous studies conducted from 2010 to 2011 indicated that the “moderate” consumption of alcohol, especially wine or beer, could help prevent dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Such findings, though, have been proven to be wrong. Although some nutrients found in soft alcohol may improve brain function, ethanol intake does not. Ethanol is a key ingredient in beer, wine and alcoholic beverages. So, at best, drinking small amounts of wine may have no health effects later in life, or on brain function.

The symptoms of ARBD and Alzheimer’s disease are similar because both affect the cholinergic system. This plays a vital role in the regulation of attention and memory. Although researchers now understand that Alzheimer’s disease is not caused by ARBD, both have similar effects in the brain as they both reduce its function in certain ways. One study done in 2013 revealed that 78 percent of people found to have ARBD exhibited symptoms of dementia.

ARBD is sort of an umbrella term, like dementia, to describe alcohol-induced brain damage that may affect a person later in life. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a specific form of alcohol-related brain injury that may be related to alcohol-induced dementia. However, ARBD includes dementia that persists after the individual is no longer dependent on alcohol, unlike with Wernicke-Korsakoff.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

The most common form of alcohol-induced dementia is a combination of two conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s dementia. Although a person may develop one of these conditions or the other, they often occur together. They are both caused by a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency.

Because vitamin supplementation in the Western world is such a popular practice, it is uncommon for people to not ingest enough vitamin B1. Alcohol consumption, however, prevents the body from properly processing this vitamin even if you are taking supplements or eating food rich in vitamins.

Korsakoff’s dementia comprises symptoms related to memory and cognitive difficulties. Wernicke’s encephalopathy, on the other hand, causes a loss of coordination, stumbling, abnormal eye movement, and confusion due to inadequate thiamine. Korsakoff’s dementia may occur without Wernicke’s encephalopathy and is long-lasting. However, Wernicke’s usually occurs just before Korsakoff’s.

Characteristics of this form of dementia:

  • Long-term memory gaps
  • Confabulation or confusion
  • Difficulty in acquiring new information

This form of dementia can still clear up if a person stops drinking soon enough.

alcohol induced dementia

Risk factors for alcohol-induced dementia

People who have been, over a period of years, habitually drinking excessive amounts of alcohol may have alcohol-related dementia. Males who consume more than six regular-sized alcoholic drinks a day, or women who drink more than four, tend to be at an increased risk of developing alcohol-induced dementia. The risk, of course, increases for people who regularly drink higher levels of alcohol.

There are also people who drink alcohol at high levels but do not develop alcohol-induced dementia. However, at this time, it is not possible to understand or foresee who will experience alcohol-related dementia and who will not, especially as it affects both men and women of any age.

Many people who develop alcohol-induced dementia, whether they eventually limit alcohol intake to safe levels or abstain from alcohol altogether and maintain good health, may also display some degree of improvement over time. However, it can become a permanent condition that requires care, especially among elderly people and those who have struggled with chronic alcoholism for decades.

One English study revealed that alcohol consumption increases the likelihood that an elderly adult will suffer from dementia at some point. The study also discovered that older adults who took part in binge drinking once a month were 62 percent more likely to experience declines in cognitive abilities, while 27 percent experienced the greatest declines in cognitive function.

Treatment and care

Alcohol-induced dementia may be minimized or reversed at an early stage if the patient stays away from alcohol, changes their diet, and takes enough vitamins, especially thiamine. Thiamine is known as an effective treatment for reversing some of the adverse effects of alcohol in the short-term. Nuts, seeds, eggs, legumes, oats, and beef are all good sources of thiamine.

Community support is also important to help the patient with alcohol-induced dementia, their family, and caregivers. Awareness and understanding of this condition can also discourage people from excessive alcohol consumption. The more people know about what can happen to their health in the future, the more empowered they are to make healthy decisions early in life.

If you or an elderly relative have been diagnosed with dementia and require assisted living care, contact Villas at San Bernardino. Our caring team can help!


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