Alcohol and Dementia: Are They Related?
There is a running joke about alcohol and how it is the best problem-solver, as it helps a person forget problems, even if only for a while.
Many think this is mostly due to alcohol inebriation, where the brain is affected by the depressant properties of alcohol, resulting in slight memory impairment, cognitive function slow down, and a host of other things.
The truth of the matter is that there is a disturbing link between dementia and alcoholism, and depending upon the length of time that a person has been abusing alcohol, the memory loss may be more permanent than they think.
This is where the joke ends for many, as a thorough assessment of their mental faculties could reveal significant impairment ranging from missing portions of recent memory, to an inability to form new memories and learn new things. The worst part of this is the fact that these issues could be both permanent, and just the start of an array of mental impairments that could severely impact a person’s life.
Can Alcoholism Cause Dementia?
Dementia is a major concern all over the world, as no cure has yet been found for it. In the US alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that in 2019, at least 5.8 million people had Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and related dementias.
While dementia, and to a larger extent Alzheimer’s disease, might be due to a number of reasons, the CDC has data that points to a growing number of people developing dementia due to complications brought about by excessive alcohol use. This is derived from studies done on the condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome. This condition is primarily brought about by the body’s inability to absorb or process the vitamin thiamine, which is essential in proper neurological health and function.
Alcohol abuse is largely seen as a major contributing factor to the body’s inability to absorb thiamine, which inevitably leads to Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome, otherwise known as wet brain. This condition is a degenerative brain disorder which not only causes rapid neurological function impairment, but also death.
Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome is actually made up of two disorders which typically manifests one after the other. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is the first stage of the disease, and if it is left undiagnosed and untreated, the more lethal Korsakoff syndrome follows soon after.
Dementia is one of the more prominent symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome, and since this syndrome is brought about by severe alcohol use, it answers the question can alcoholism cause dementia.
What is Dementia?
The clinical definition of dementia is the loss of cognitive functions, including thinking, memory, and logical reasoning. Depending on the severity, age of the person, and general health, this impairment could be occasional or chronic. The more severe phase of dementia will leave the person unable to engage in the most basic activities of living, such as eating, bathing, and wearing clothes.
Dementia could be the result of a number of other disorders, such as degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, vascular conditions, or even from a traumatic event that left either physical, emotional, or psychological damage.
Severe vitamin and nutrient deficiency is also largely held to promote dementia by way of causing neurological damage. Deprivation of thiamine is known to lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome, and one of the most prominent symptoms of this condition is dementia. To a certain extent, malnutrition could also lead to the development of this disease, although it is not as prevalent as when caused by alcohol abuse.
What are the symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome?
As this disease is made up of two conditions, there are two sets of symptoms that could be observed. The two sets of symptoms come one after the other as the disease progresses, with the first condition, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, being the acute first stage, and Korsakoff’s syndrome, the second stage, being the chronic second stage.
Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:
- Ataxia (loss of muscle coordination)
- Leg tremors
- Nystagmus (abnormal eye movements)
- Double vision
- Droopy eyelids
- Unsteady stance
- Irregular gait
Symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome include:
- Confabulation (experiencing false memories)
- Memory impairment or loss
- Inability to form new memories
The cognitive impairments caused by Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome largely bear the hallmarks of dementia as they all eventually cause anyone to slowly lose the ability to do the most basic of activities.
Many attribute the drastic mood and personality changes in people with a history of alcohol abuse to the onset of the cognitive function damage due to Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome. This is because there are still those who revert to their normal or typical personality and mood once the inebriation wears off.
Such drastic changes should already be taken as hallmarks of significant neurological effects and medical help for the person should already be sought.
It is important that these changes be addressed immediately because the next manifestation could either be retrograde or anterograde amnesia. Exhibiting signs of memory deficits could point to the condition already worsening, and should not be taken lightly.
This form of memory deficit manifests in the difficulty or even inability of people to recognize pertinent information experienced through relatively recent events. Some call this as short-term memory problems, where a peculiarity of the condition is in the person being able to recall earlier memories much better than recent ones.
This is different from memory deficits brought on by either head trauma or disease, where the tendency is for the person to not remember entire chunks of their past, including both earlier and recent experiences.
This form of memory issue is manifested in the difficulty or inability of the person to form new memories, or learn new things. This includes recalling a list of words and recognizing faces, and in perseveration, or trying to repeat specific patterns or information recently gleaned.
This particular memory deficit is quite dangerous to a certain extent, as people who suffer from it often also lose the ability to discern between rewarded stimuli and non-rewarded stimuli. An example of this is a person’s ability to discern or remember if something is safe to eat or touch. This practically exposes the person to a high likelihood of getting poisoned, crossing the road when they should not, and a host of other dangers that could happen when the brain fails to recognize or recall life-saving facts.
Can Alcohol-related Dementia be Treated?
As far as adverse alcohol effects go, the most reliable form of treatment that medical professionals would recommend is abstinence. At the very least, this will not add to the current damage already done to the body by excessive alcohol intake, and relevant treatment, if possible, will be administered.
At the earlier stage of alcohol-related dementia from Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome, the only effective treatment being used is intensive thiamine infusion to compensate for the thiamine deficiency. It should be noted, however, that this treatment will only work if Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome is still at the Wernicke’s encephalopathy stage, which is the first stage.
The thiamine infusion treatment, if administered on time before the onset of the second stage, has proven to be quite efficacious for a good number of people diagnosed with Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Most, if not all, of the cognitive functions previously impaired have been observed as returning to normal levels relevant to the age of the person.
It is important to note, however, that people with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, even when treated with thiamine infusions and with their cognitive functions returning to acceptable levels, should not take any alcohol anymore, or even risk a diet that is low or lacks thiamine. Doing so will cause their condition to worsen once more and proceed to the lethal second stage of Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome, which is Korsakoff’s syndrome.
If the onset of Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome is left undiagnosed and untreated, there is a great likelihood that the condition will worsen and move into stage two, which is Korsakoff’s syndrome. This stage is chronic, and ultimately incurable.
The difficulty in diagnosing Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome lies in the fact that a person needs to be relatively sober for any kind of test to be administered, since most elements of the test will check if the person’s mental faculties are still sound outside of being inebriated with alcohol. There are instances where people no longer have this luxury as they appear to be in a constant state of stupor or drunkenness, and any kind of test will not yield valid results.
This is why in many cases, an immediate intervention is the best course, just to ensure that no further damage is incurred by the person, and so that detox and treatment may also be immediately done.
There is Hope for People who need Alcohol Abuse Treatment at First City Recovery
Dementia and alcoholism both sound so final and grim, and for some people, it actually is. There is, however, hope. The professionals at First City Recovery can give a thorough assessment of what treatment a person would need, and give the appropriate care and attention needed for the condition.
There is always hope for a treatment at First City Recovery, because we know there are people who need it the most, and we are here for them.
Let us help you now.
Dr. Vahid Osman, MD is a psychiatry specialist in Indianapolis, IN.
Dr. Osman completed a residency at Austin State Hospital. He has over 32 years of experience in Psychiatry & Behavioral Health. He is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.