Alcoholic Dementia: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Alcohol can significantly impact how our brains function, leading to memory problems and cognitive impairment, which is also known as dementia.

Let’s take a look at how you can identify alcohol-induced dementia, its causes and treatments, and how to prevent it.

Understanding Alcoholic Dementia

Alcoholic dementia, or alcohol-related dementia (ARD), is a form of cognitive impairment. It happens to some people who drink too much alcohol or have been drinking for a long time.

People with dementia experience physiological and psychological problems that can persist even after they quit drinking.

Causes

Excessive alcohol consumption changes your brain both structurally and functionally. It has a toxic effect on your brain cells and can lead to permanent damage, which is called alcohol-related brain injury.  

In 2022, a large study that included over 36,000 people proved just how much an alcoholic brain is different from a normal one.

Each participant was asked to consume three units of alcohol a day for a month. That’s around 1.5 pints of beer or three small glasses of wine daily.

At the end of the month, they compared brain scans from before and after. Most participants had reductions in their brains’ white and gray matter, making their brains look almost 3.5 years older.

Alcoholic dementia has also been linked to certain nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin B1 (thiamine) and folic acid. These are especially common in alcoholics with poor nutrition because alcohol disrupts the body’s ability to absorb and utilize certain nutrients.    

Symptoms

Memory Impairment

With alcohol-related dementia, memory loss is steady and gradual. It happens because brain cells lose memory-storing and recalling abilities over time.

Remembering recent events or committing new ones to memory becomes difficult because the brain’s communication pathways and neural networks are affected.

Problems with Language and Communication Skills

Dementia can make it difficult to express your thoughts or communicate your feelings and opinions.

You may have difficulty understanding complex sentences or keeping up with a conversation or train of thought. This can lead to frustration and social isolation.

Reasoning and Problem-Solving Issues

If you struggle with planning for the future or assessing risks, this can lead to poor judgment and impulsive decisions.

Also, everyday tasks that require logical reasoning, like following a recipe or balancing a checkbook, can become increasingly challenging.

Emotional Changes

Alcohol abuse can cause occasional mood swings, especially when you’ve had too much to drink. Mood swings are also part of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which happen when you try to quit.

That said, more severe changes happen when there’s brain damage involved. Anxiety, apathy, and depression are common symptoms of alcohol-related dementia. You can also become irritable much more frequently and severely than usual.

Impaired Motor Skills

When you drink too much alcohol, it’s normal to experience some motor impairment, such as trouble walking in a straight line or loss of balance.

However, if this becomes a regular symptom,  it could be alcohol-induced dementia affecting your fine motor control.

Seniors are most likely to experience this problem, such as difficulty buttoning their shirts or tying their shoes.  

Complications of Alcoholic Dementia

Alzheimer’s Disease

According to the Alzheimer’s Organization, your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s due to alcohol depends on how much you drink.

Some studies have found that mild alcohol consumption can slightly reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s.

On the other hand, if you overdrink regularly, your risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases by 300%. Having four or more drinks for men and three or more drinks for women in one sitting is considered overdrinking.

Korsakoff Syndrome

Korsakoff syndrome is a type of dementia that happens when you have severe thiamine deficiency. Thiamine helps your brain turn sugar into energy, which it needs to function properly. It’s responsible for memory, problem-solving, reasoning, and other cognitive abilities.

Alcohol damages the inner lining of your intestines, making it difficult to absorb thiamine, which causes dementia.

While there are many other causes of Korsakoff syndrome, such as AIDS, cancer, infections, and poor nutrition, the most common one is alcohol misuse.

Wernicke Encephalopathy

Some alcoholics might experience a medical emergency called Wernicke encephalopathy. It’s a type of brain injury characterized by abnormal eye movements and severe loss of coordination and balance.

Korsakoff syndrome and Wernicke encephalopathy can occur simultaneously because both result from thiamine deficiency, this condition is called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Diagnosing Alcohol-Related Dementia

Healthcare providers can perform physical and psychological tests to determine if you have dementia. They often give you a questionnaire to gauge your cognitive abilities and memory.

If the initial exams show moderate to severe signs of dementia, your doctor might order a brain scan to rule out vascular dementia resulting from a stroke, tumor, or internal bleeding.

These tests can also help differentiate alcoholic dementia from other types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

Who Is Most Likely To Develop Alcohol-Related Dementia?

Anyone who’s been drinking large amounts of alcohol for years has a high risk of developing dementia.

However, it all comes down to genetics, lifestyle factors, and nutrition.

While alcoholic dementia can affect both men and women, it’s much more common in men. It’s also age-related, where most cases happen between 40 and 50 years old.

Is Alcohol Dementia Reversible?

Dementia can be reversible, but it depends on the type of alcohol-related brain damage you have. If a large number of brain cells have been significantly affected, they cannot fully restore their function, so the effects will likely be permanent.

However, if the brain cells have only shrunk, they often return to their normal volume a few weeks after you stop drinking alcohol.

Treating Alcoholic Dementia

The first step of treatment is to quit drinking and manage the withdrawal symptoms that will likely occur.

It’s better to visit a rehab facility or join an alcohol addiction program before you quit so medical professionals can help with your symptoms. They can provide you with addiction medication, fluids, minerals, and nutrition, which can ease your detoxification.

If your doctor suspects you might develop Korsakoff syndrome, they might prescribe oral or injectable thiamine supplements and magnesium.

Sometimes, healthcare providers may recommend special devices to help you with balance, movement, and fine motor skills.

Preventing Alcohol-Related Dementia

The best way to delay or prevent alcoholic dementia is to reduce your intake or quit drinking altogether. If you decide to drink in moderation, make sure to spread your drinks over three or more days and have as many alcohol-free days as you can.

Other things you can do to lower your risk of dementia include:

  • Exercise more
  • Engage in mental activities weekly, such as puzzles and games
  • Follow a healthy, balanced diet
  • Take vitamin B supplements if you can’t meet your daily requirements through food.
  • Avoid smoking
  • Find ways to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression other than binge drinking.
  • Monitor your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol

Avoid Alcoholic Brain Injury by Starting Your Recovery Journey Today

If you suspect that you or a loved one might have alcohol-related dementia, reach out to a healthcare provider as soon as you can. The sooner you identify and treat it, the better health outcomes you can have.

Book an appointment today with Curednation. We can guide you on your sobriety journey and help you manage your symptoms.

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