What is Alcoholic Dementia and How to Treat It?

Last Updated: June 10, 2020

Scientists have devoted a great deal of time and effort to researching and reporting on the detrimental effects of alcohol on the human body. However, one area that may not have been reported on enough is what happens to the human mind after years of abuse? For example, most people know that prolonged use of alcohol can cause physical illnesses such as liver and heart disease. But few know that abuse can lead to a mental illness known as alcohol dementia.

At a time when many people are concerned about the rise in Alzheimer’s disease, it’s important to remember that alcohol-induced dementia can result in similarly impaired cognitive function and neurological damage. And while the causes of Alzheimer’s and its ability to strike anyone at any time are not fully understood, there is no such mystery about this other form of dementia. Alcohol-related dementia (ARM) is caused by long-term, excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. Period.

Alcohol is the most-used and most-abused drug on the planet. It is approved for legal use almost everywhere and is considered acceptable in most cultures. However, alcohol has addictive properties and can lead to a variety of serious medical conditions. ALL alcoholic beverages, whether the drink is beer, liquor, or wine, can lead to potentially deadly intoxication. Also, the toxic effects it has on the body and brain can be amplified by underlying medical conditions, genetic predispositions, and one’s overall state of health. These factors can drastically influence how an individual can handle frequent alcohol intoxication. The resulting conclusion is that anyone of any age or any background can become addicted.

So it is with this conclusion in mind that this article presents a number of cautionary facts about alcohol and dementia, one of the most serious results of alcohol abuse. Dementia is not just something that could happen to elderly grandparents. Alcohol-related dementia can potentially happen to anyone, of any age.

What is Alcoholic Dementia?

Alcohol dementia is a condition characterized by impaired neurological and cognitive functioning and is the result of excessive alcohol consumption over many years. Dementia caused by alcohol may be influenced by other conditions and side effects, but the link between dementia and alcohol consumption cannot be ignored – the primary cause of the condition is continuous alcohol abuse.
Many people think of dementia as a problem that only affects the elderly or those with other underlying conditions that worsen over an extended period as they enter old age. This is not true of dementia caused by alcoholism. Dementia from alcohol can develop at any age and destroy the lives of its sufferers and those around them.
Alcohol-induced dementia is thought to be a reactive combination of conditions, triggered by abuse. In the following section, we examine the two underlying conditions most associated with alcoholism and dementia.

Factors that Contribute to Alcoholic Dementia

While alcohol abuse is the main cause of this form of dementia, two other underlying factors thought to contribute to alcoholism dementia are:

  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE) – Also called Wernicke’s disease, this neurological condition is caused by a deficiency of B vitamin reserves, in particular, thiamine (vitamin B1). This deficiency is most often the result of alcohol abuse itself, combined with related chronic episodes of vomiting. Symptoms of WE related to alcohol dementia symptoms include mental malaise and confusion, erratic eye movement, loss of coordination, memory impairment, and amnesia.
  • Korsakoff’s syndrome – Like WE, Korsakoff’s syndrome is caused by thiamine depletion, most often the result of alcohol abuse. Korsakoff’s syndrome is also known to cause problems that include severe gaps in memory, impaired social skills, and coordination, decreased the ability to remember conversations or occasions, and the ability to tell reality from unreality. Sufferers may be unaware of their lapses in memory, communication skills, or cognitive abilities. Additionally, and one of the key signs of alcoholic dementia, patients are prone to making up false information to fill in lost gaps, remaining unaware that they are lying or confabulating information.

Both of these underlying conditions are strongly associated with alcoholic dementia and are considered contributing factors to its development. The collective damage to the human brain and body usually starts when sufferers develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy as the first and foremost condition. As the alcohol dementia stages progress, WE can in turn cause Korsakoff’s syndrome. When the two conditions are present at the same time, the resulting condition is referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
At this point, one may be tempted to ask, “Does alcohol cause dementia, period?” The answer is no. There is a difference between occasional or even frequent consumption and the type of abuse that can lead to alcohol-induced dementia. Drinking to the point of feeling tipsy or inebriated is one thing, but if one is prone to drinking until one becomes ill, highly intoxicated, and subsequently hungover on a regular basis, this type of behavior qualifies as abuse, and can over time cause alcoholic dementia.
Indications of abuse may include slurring of speech, bursts of anger, headache, losing consciousness or coordination, violent mood swings, slow reaction times, and impaired mental capacity. Alcohol-related blackouts, or frequently ‘passing out’ while drinking is also dangerous, and have a cumulative effect on the human brain over time.
Alcohol can and will, over time, impair and potentially destroy mental capabilities. Coupled with the severe physical and social problems abuse can cause, alcohol abuse can seriously influence cognitive ability and memory. If present along with Alzheimer’s disease, alcoholic-related dementia can become a progressive and incurable condition known as alcohol-induced psychosis.

Treating and Preventing Alcoholic Dementia

Treatment for alcohol dementia symptoms is available but may be unpleasant to undergo. Treatments include the use of intravenous (IV) therapies to allow the body to recover from nutritional deficiencies. Other rehabilitation programs related to dementia and alcohol consumption try to make sure continued drinking doesn’t cause the condition to worsen.
Though the prognosis is often grim once alcoholic dementia is present in any capacity, rehabilitation programs work to prevent the underlying problem of alcohol abuse from causing the condition to persist and worsen. The use of IV infusions to compensate for the chronic nutritional deficiency caused by alcohol abuse can be, for example, an effective rehabilitation method.
Chronic abusers will find it difficult to abstain fully. Alcoholic dementia occurs and gets worse when alcohol users drink so much or so frequently that they do not adequately replace the nutrition they are losing in their daily diet. As their deficiency worsens, so does their mental state. This can become such an escalating problem that alcohol dementia life expectancy becomes very low.
Regarding recovery, the most obvious causative factor, dementia from alcohol consumption, means that alcohol is something that patients will be implored to avoid completely as part of their recovery program. Thiamine therapy is considered the most effective approach in the treatment of alcohol-induced memory loss and nutritional deficiency causing Wernicke’s encephalopathy. But while such treatments can be utilized to improve the brain and body function of sufferers, elderly alcoholic dementia sufferers who have abused alcohol over the course of many, many years may not be able to fully recover.

Page Sources

  1. Cheng C, Huang CL, Tsai CJ, Chou PH, Lin CC, Chang CK. Alcohol-Related Dementia: A Systemic Review of Epidemiological Studies. Psychosomatics. 2017 Jul - Aug;58(4):331-342. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28501289
  2. Gutwinski S, Schreiter S, Priller J, Henssler J, Wiers CE, Heinz A. Drink and Think: Impact of Alcohol on Cognitive Functions and Dementia - Evidence of Dose-Related Effects. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2018 Jul;51(4):136-143.https://www.thieme-connect.com/products/ejournals/abstract/10.1055/s-0043-118664
  3. Anstey KJ, Mack HA, Cherbuin N. Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline: meta-analysis of prospective studies. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2009 Jul;17(7):542-55. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19546653

Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: June 10th, 2020

About Author

Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette has been working in the health communications field since 1991, when she began working at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Her initial campaigns focused on smoking cessation and cancer prevention. Juliette later moved to the corporate side of health communications, including working at Kaiser Permanente, where she designed interactive computer-based training for health education.


Leave a comment

  • paula kubiak
    Hi my name is paula kubiak and my boyfriend has been a serious alcoholic for the last 5 yrs daily. he was sober for 15 but started again. This man has copd/lung issues weighs 100, refuses to stop as his dr has instructed seversal times. He drinks a minimun of 5 quarts a beer daily . he gets so verbally abusive is out of control the behaviors etc. we live together but i hate him . he gets so forgetful two minutes after i say something and worse. He thinks his behavior is fine and says sorry the next morning just to do all over again. he starts at 4am. he needs serious help. refuses to get help. he needs to be in a 72 hour hold somewhere to watch his behaviors. he breaks my stuff scrreams out of control and the list goes on. . can u please send me info on alcohol induced dementia so i can show him and his family. The stress from him has ended me up at emergency room several times with chest pains etc. Help me please the info will prove to everyone thst im not making it up.
    • Kathleen Larson
      As a recovering alcoholic I don’t believe any information will do any good, you should go to alanon to help you cope
    • Patricia
      Hi Paula, I understand. I am in recovery myself, and I grew up in an alcoholic household. My mother is only 56 years old and she has alcohol induced dementia. It is the hardest thing to watch. I used to hate being around her when she would act like your boyfriend is acting. Now I honestly do not know which is worse. At least when she was acting out of control, I would have a valid reason to be upset. Now, she has been sober from alcohol for over a year, but it is too late. She can shower, take her meds, drive to the grocery store, and that is about it. She cannot remember anything and she does not talk or interact at all. When I pick her up to take her out to lunch or to a social gathering, she literally just sits there with nothing say. She will answer questions with one or two words. I will ask her if she remembers things from my childhood and she does not, she can’t even remember things that have happened in the same day or conversations that have happened minutes ago. It breaks my heart. So sometimes, even if people get help with alcoholism, it can still have effects later in life. I hope that your boyfriend decides to get some help. I would like to suggest AL-A-NON for you. It is a support group that helps and supports people who live with alcoholics. I think that it could be helpful for you. Best of luck to you.
      • Krista Schauffler
        Have you tried getting Thiamine (Vit B1) infusions for your mother? It has been proven to be effective for many people suffering from alcohol related dementia! It’s worth a try even if it only partially heals her it can improve her and your quality of life.
    • AmandaTrebiano
      You need to LEAVE before he kills you. Kick him to the curb, you can’t help him. He’s the only one who can help him. You are just enabling him. A practicing alcoholic doesn’t look to get better, s/he looks for someone with whom s/he can remain sick safely. That’s YOU Paula.
    • Ellen
      Have him committed. Call law enforcement and they can get an order from a judge, and have proof. It depends on your state but talk to a doctor and/or police. You don’t want him to hurt you or anyone else. My husband is trying to help his sister-in-law dealing with her husband ( my husband’s brother). If you can remove yourself from him and get someplace safe to live, do it! There is help for you and him but you need to get authorities involved and maybe other family members. Good-luck and God bless.
  • Linda
    Can a person who has been diagnosed with Alcoholic dementia begin to experience maniac episodes?
    • kelly
      Thats a great question! I wish someone would’ve answered you by now. I do not have an answer. My sister was a raging alcoholic for many yrs and lately she has been diagnosed with Manic Depression. My guess is yes. But Im not a professional.
  • Cheryl
    Paula, I am so sorry for you and your boyfriend. I know you want to help but he has to want to be helped. Since he is not your husband, you have no legal responsibilities to him and you have no legal authority over him. I would suggest you leave and if he cares for you and himself he will do what is necessary. Right now, you are enabling him by being there and allowing him to abuse you in whatever fashion. Praying for him is all you can do right now. Share information where he can get help but he has to reach a point of wanting to reform no one can make him. Take care of yourself, if he does want to reform, you will need all your energies to support him.
  • Diana
    I too am married to an alcoholic abuser. He is 71,on blood thinners,asthma, COPD,High Blood Pressure,Alcoholic induced Dementia, and has WE..he has become more aggressive than ever..he drinks at least a pint or two of Vodka.. Been married to my husband for 15 years..,, 4 years were great and fun,. Since 2008 he stopped fishing going on picnics and to the lake..and he loves the lake…I have decided to leave him soon as I can…I need to be really happy again… I am going to celebrate my 70th birthday in November with my born again Christian Family,.Love to all victims of alcohol abuse..you don’t need that person wearing you out..it isn’t worth it.I still love my husband,but not in love anymore as he broke my heart into thousands of pieces..God Bless You..
  • Sherri S
    My husband was a half a gallon of whiskey and a six pack every day. He decided one day to just quit and a few days later he was having dementia and fell headfirst off our porch onto bricks. He has not been able to walk since. I’m not sure this is his diagnosis but he has a lot off the symptoms. Is this fixable? He has no life and has not got out of his recliner since 2013.
  • C. Miller
    Thank you for a this informative article. Most people never heard of it. I have researched all dementias and it was not listed with the other more common ones. This needs to be addressed with all neurologists when someone takes their loved one for evaluation. Please continue the good work and get the word out there especially to college aged children.
  • Sikhumbuzo Makhosana
    More info
  • Ann
    Hi, Since marijuana’s now legal in our state. My husband feels that it’s ok to be high constantly. He also drinks every day more so in the evening when he is high. He repeats himself sometimes even after I mentioned that I heard it already. He will repeat the same story any time he has a new audience. Get off subject and interject a different topic when he’s high . I will ask him to drop something yet come back and repeat the same thing. Or if he is angry because someone said something to him. He argues with them then tries to justify himself to anyone else who will listen and agree with him! What can I do?
  • Dan
    My brother was just diagnosed with Karsakoff syndrome (47) Does that mean he’ll need assistance the rest of his life in some sort of Assisted home?
  • Dan
    My brother is 46 and has alcoholic dementia. I’m not sure that he’ll ever be able to leave a nursing home. He can’t take care of himself anymore.