Alcohol and Dementia: Is There a Link? – Not only is alcohol consumption responsible for thousands of car accidents each year, but abuse also causes damage to internal organs, particularly the liver and kidneys. Alcohol use also increases the risk of several cancers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Links Between Alcohol and Dementia
In addition to these other effects, alcohol can also increase the risk of dementia. While many people associate the term dementia with Alzheimer’s, this is only one form of the disease and is actually comprised of several conditions that can lead to memory loss, cognitive impairments, and changes in social functioning.
General symptoms of dementia include the following:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty communicating
- Trouble solving problems or with reasoning
- Trouble handling complex tasks
- Difficulty with planning or organizing
- Impaired coordination or motor function
- Disorientation or confusion
- Personality changes
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Inappropriate behavior
- Agitation, irritation, and restlessness
While dementia can be idiopathic, occurring from no specific source, a few subtypes can be directly linked to alcohol use disorder. This is because alcohol and drug use can kill brain cells at a faster rate than age does alone.
Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Dementia associated with alcohol use disorder is classified as alcohol-related brain damage or ARBD. Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol prevents neurons from regenerating, causing them to die instead. While it can develop in anyone who struggles with alcohol use disorder, this condition is becoming increasingly common among middle-aged and older adults.
ARBD is of special concern for middle-aged women because alcohol affects women more intensely than men. This is due to variations in hormones, body fat composition, and height/weight ratio between sexes. Despite this, men are still diagnosed with ARBD more often than women, and this is likely because men tend to consume more alcohol than women throughout their lives.
ARBD and Alzheimer’s disease have comparable symptoms because they both impact the cholinergic system, which plays a critical role in memory. While researchers now concur that ARBD does not cause Alzheimer’s disease, the two conditions produce similar effects by harming the brain in the same manner.
ARBD is a somewhat broad term to describe alcohol-induced brain damage that can impact a person later in life. A more specific condition is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) – a disease caused by a thiamine deficiency. However, unlike Wernicke-Korsakoff, ARBD covers dementia that continues after the individual stops consuming alcohol.
The most common form of alcohol-related dementia is characterized by a combination of two conditions – Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s dementia. A person may suffer from one or the other of these conditions, but they often occur together, as they are both the result of thiamine (B1) deficiency. It is unusual in the West to not consume enough B1, but alcohol impedes the body from correctly processing this vitamin.
Korsakoff’s dementia is a cluster of symptoms related to memory and cognitive problems. Wernicke’s encephalopathy causes a loss of coordination, abnormal eye movements, and confusion due to a lack of thiamine. Korsakoff’s dementia is longer-lasting, however, and may occur without Wernicke’s encephalopathy being associated with it, although Wernicke’s frequently occurs just before Korsakoff’s.
This form of dementia is characterized by lapses in long-term memory and misinterpreting or misremembering those lapses, and difficulties in learning new information.
It is possible for Korsakoff’s dementia to improve if a person stops drinking. However, it may become permanent, especially among the elderly and those who have struggled with alcohol use disorder for an extended period.
Alcohol Use After Dementia
A recent study examined people who already experienced dementia and found that continued alcohol use increased the likelihood of their decline. Investigators discovered that older adults who engaged in binge drinking once per month were 62% more likely to suffer from reductions in cognitive function.
People who have dementia, whether as a result of alcohol use disorder or not, are likely to experience more severe memory loss if they drink alcohol. In part, this is due to reactions between dementia medications, other drugs for other illnesses, and alcohol. It can also be the result of alcohol use itself, especially in the more advanced stages of dementia.
Getting Help for Alcohol Use Disorder
Dementia is only one of many conditions associated with alcohol use disorder. Those dependent on alcohol are urged to seek treatment in a rehab program, either on an inpatient or intensive outpatient basis.
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