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.
Table of Contents
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.
- 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
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