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Alcohol & Dementia: How Alcohol Impacts Memory Loss

Alcohol is one of the most abused substances in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an average of 88,000 deaths each year related to binge drinking, heavy drinking, and other forms of alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol can increase the risk of dementia. Although most people associate the term dementia with Alzheimer’s, that is only one form of the brain condition. The term actually encompasses several conditions that can cause memory loss, cognitive impairments, and changes in social function that are caused naturally by aging.

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Symptoms of Dementia

General dementia symptoms include:

  • Memory loss
  • Trouble finding words or communicating
  • Trouble solving problems or reasoning
  • Trouble handling complex tasks
  • Difficulty planning or organizing
  • Changes in coordination or motor function
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Changes in personality
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Hallucinations

Causes of Dementia

While dementia can be idiopathic (from no specific source), there are several subtypes that can be linked directly to alcohol use disorder. This is because drugs and alcohol kill brain cells at a faster rate than age alone. One study found that people who consumed five or more bottles of beer in one sitting, or one bottle of wine, in midlife were three times more likely than people who did not binge drink to have dementia by the time they turned 65. Although Alzheimer’s and alcohol-induced dementia appear similar, their causes are different.

Alcohol Induced Dementia

Dementia tied to alcohol use disorder is categorized as alcohol-related brain damage, or ARBD. Consuming large amounts of alcohol prevents neurons from regenerating, so they die. While it can begin in anyone who struggles with alcohol use disorder, this condition is becoming more common among middle-aged and older adults, since people ages 16-24 are drinking alcohol less and abusing different drugs instead.

ARBD is especially problematic for middle-aged women, since alcohol affects women more strongly than men. This is due to differences in hormones, body fat composition, and height/weight ratio between genders. In spite of this, men still receive more diagnoses for ARBD than women, probably related to men drinking more alcohol than women throughout their lives, especially among elderly adults.

Studies from 2010 and 2011 suggested that “moderate” alcohol consumption, specifically of wine or beer, could help to prevent dementia, including Alzheimer’s. However, these studies have been proven wrong; although some nutrients found in soft alcohol may help brain function, consuming ethanol does not. At best, drinking wine or beer in moderate amounts has no effect on brain function later in life.

ARBD and Alzheimer’s disease have similar symptoms because they both affect the cholinergic system, which plays an important role in memory. While researchers now understand that Alzheimer’s disease is not caused by ARBD, the two induce similar effects by reducing the brain in certain similar ways. A 2013 study found that 78 percent of people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder displayed some form of dementia or brain pathology.

Like dementia, ARBD is still a somewhat broad term to describe alcohol-induced brain damage that can affect a person later in life. A more specific condition, which is difficult to diagnose prior to death, is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome – a condition induced by thiamine deficiency. However, unlike Wernicke-Korsakoff, ARBD covers dementia that persists after the individual ends their dependence on alcohol.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

The most prevalent form of alcohol-related dementia is a combination of two conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s dementia. A person may develop one or the other of these conditions, but they often occur together, as they are both caused by a thiamine (B1) deficiency. It is unusual in the Western world to not ingest enough B1, but alcohol prevents the body from properly processing this vitamin.

Korsakoff’s dementia is the cluster of symptoms related to memory and cognitive difficulties. While Wernicke’s encephalopathy causes stumbling, a loss of coordination, abnormal eye movements, and confusion due to a sudden lack of thiamine, Korsakoff’s dementia is longer-lasting. It may occur without Wernicke’s encephalopathy being associated with it, although Wernicke’s often occurs just before Korsakoff’s. This form of dementia is characterized by:

  • Gaps in long-term memory
  • Confabulation to fill those gaps
  • Struggles learning new information

It is possible for this form of dementia to clear up if a person stops drinking; however, it may become permanent, especially among people who are elderly and who have struggled with alcohol use disorder for decades.

Alcohol Consumption after Dementia

An English study examined people who already had dementia and found that alcohol consumption increased the likelihood of their decline. Researchers found that older adults who engaged in binge drinking once per month were 62 percent more likely to experience declines in cognitive function while 27 percent experienced the greatest declines in cognitive function.

People who have a form of dementia, whether caused by alcohol use disorder or not, are likely to suffer more serious memory loss if they consume alcohol. In part, this is caused by reactions between dementia medications, other medications for other ailments, and alcohol. It can also be caused by alcohol itself, especially in the later stages of dementia. Senior citizens who binge drank twice per month were 147 percent were more likely to experience cognitive decline and 146 percent more likely to have more memory problems compared to those who did not drink.

Treatment & Outlook

Dementia is only one of many problems associated with alcohol use disorder. This serious condition can cause harm to many organ systems. Getting help with detox, then entering a rehabilitation program, is the best way to overcome this chronic disease. Medical professionals, therapists, counselors, and other professionals offer social support and care to end addiction. Therapy to understand how addiction is triggered, and to change behaviors around consuming drugs or alcohol, will help a person maintain sobriety and lead a healthy life.

Last Updated on September 14, 2021
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