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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.1

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.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is a general term for the impaired ability to think, remember, or make decisions. Dementia can affect your memory, language skills, problem-solving skills, and more. Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not a typical part of aging.2,3

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. However, there are various forms of dementia, ranging from Alzheimer’s to Lewy Body Dementia, Vascular Dementia, Frontotemporal Dementia, and more.2,3

Symptoms of Dementia

Dementia may look different from person to person, but in general, someone with dementia may exhibit some of the following symptoms:3,4

  • Memory problems.
  • Attention problems.
  • Issues with communicating.
  • Issues with reasoning, judgment, and problem solving.
  • Disruption in visual perception beyond typical age-related changes in vision.

Other people may notice that a loved one with dementia:

  • Gets lost in their own neighborhood.
  • Forgets the names and identities of close family members or friends.
  • Forgets old memories.
  • Is unable to complete certain daily living tasks independently.

Causes of Dementia

Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells and an inability for certain parts of the brain to communicate properly with one another. Different types of dementia are sometimes associated with damage inflicted upon certain regions of the brain.3

Alcohol-Induced Dementia

Excessive and prolonged alcohol use can lead to permanent damage to the structure and functions of the brain.5

As of present times, there are two present diagnostic systems for those who experience alcohol-related learning, memory, and overall cognitive impairment: alcohol-related dementia (ARD) and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). Evidence is still unclear about whether these two conditions overlap in pathology and cause but, typically, WKS is associated with persistently-low levels of thiamine.6

It is unclear what exact level of drinking may pose risk for the development of enduring alcohol-related memory lost. However, each of these conditions can be extremely dangerous and sometimes even fatal. If you believe that yourself or a loved one are suffering from either ARD or WKS, be sure to contact your physician immediately or call 911.

Ways to Get in Contact With Us

If you believe you or someone you love may be struggling with addiction, let us hear your story and help you determine a path to treatment.

There are a variety of confidential, free, and no obligation ways to get in contact with us to learn more about treatment.

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:7

  • 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

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.

Statistics & Prevalence3,8,9

  • Around 78% of those diagnosed with alcohol use disorder display some form of dementia or brain pathology issues.
  • Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases, but scientists are still unsure of exactly how many people are diagnosed with WKS in the United States.
  • Over-consumption of alcohol is found to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 300%.

Treatment & Outlook for Alcohol Use Disorders & Dementia

Treatment for conditions such as alcohol-related dementia or WKS may involve rehabilitation, high doses of thiamine daily, and more. Although WKS may involve some types of irreversible changes in the structure of the brain, it offers promising prognoses with the proper treatment. Evidence suggests that 25% of those who develop Korsakoff syndrome and get treatment recovery fully, about half improve but don’t completely recover, and around 25% remain unchanged in the severity of their WKS diagnosis. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/types-of-dementia/korsakoff-syndrome

If you or a loved one are looking for alcohol use disorder treatment, American Addiction Centers offers various nationwide treatment facilities specializing in the treatment of AUD and other substance use disorders.

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Last Updated on January 7, 2022
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