Alcohol Induced Dementia
You enjoyed drinking in your younger years, partying on weekends, and experiencing many nights where details are missing from your memory. It wasn’t a big deal – all of your friends were doing the same. But as you got older, you found yourself drinking every night after work. You were never great at managing stress, and alcohol has been your go-to for a long time.
Lately, you find it difficult to remember basic things. You get in the car for work and next thing you know, you are in your parking space – the 20-minute commute a nonexistent memory. At your desk, you try to type but you can’t seem to get your hands to function. Then, it hits you, you remember your father was a long-time drinker. You remember the end, where he couldn’t recognize you on most of your visits. The doctors told you he was going through alcohol-induced dementia. Is this happening to you? Is it fixable, or do you share the same outcome as your dad?
In 2021, 403 people per 100,000 in Hillsborough County died from Alzheimer’s Disease. While alcohol is not the only cause of this condition, it does pose the question: How many of these deaths were alcohol-related? At Clean Recovery Centers, our goal is to provide treatment for alcohol use disorder before it develops into debilitating brain damage. With facilities along the Suncoast that offer housing certified by the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR), we give our clients a safe place to heal and address their alcohol addiction. Our blog today looks further into alcohol-induced dementia and what you need to know about its damaging effects.
Alcohol-induced dementia is a condition where long-term drinking induces symptoms of dementia. Dementia causes impaired thinking, memory, and motor function and can also cause personality and behavior changes. These symptoms tend to begin gradually, and if drinking continues, the progression can lead to permanent problems. The body only has one brain, and it is not able to repair itself after severe damage.
Causes of Alcohol-Induced Dementia
While there is not a clear indicator of the cause of alcohol-induced dementia, one of the main suspected reasons is the toxicity of alcohol. When alcohol is consumed in large amounts for long periods, the brain shrinks. Over time, the shrinkage becomes permanent, leading to alcohol induced-dementia. Another cause is the way alcohol affects the heart. Drinking causes blood vessels to constrict, making the heart work harder to pump blood throughout the body. This lack of blood flow to vital organs like the brain can lead to damage and eventually alcohol-induced dementia.
Symptoms of Alcohol-Induced Dementia
There are many symptoms of alcohol-induced dementia. These can include:
- Balance difficulties
- Difficulty planning, executing, or logically thinking on tasks
- Unable to remember events or recall past experiences
- Impaired learning
- Changes in personality or behavior
Because alcohol affects different areas of the brain, symptoms may be more related to memory, motor function, or behaviors.
The Physical Effects of Alcohol
Whether you are a high-functioning alcoholic, someone who drinks only on weekends, or someone who goes in spurts of heavy drinking and abstinence, the physical effects of alcohol can be felt. After a night of drinking, a hangover is likely to occur. Headaches, nausea, and aches and pains are the body’s way of healing from the high levels of alcohol within the system. As time progresses, more physical effects can present and become serious such as:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver disease or cancer
- Gastrointestinal conditions
- Other cancers such as breast, mouth, throat, and colon
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
Alcohol is a toxic substance, and a known carcinogen according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. While not shown to cause brain cancer, having alcohol in the body still affects the brain negatively. Drinking does not necessarily cause brain cells to die off, it interferes with the process of regenerating new ones. Without new cell growth, the brain cannot properly function and damage can occur. This is how different areas of the brain become affected by alcohol.
How Alcohol Affects Memory
The area of the brain responsible for memory creation and storage is the hippocampus. Alcohol works in the hippocampus by making it difficult to create new memories or store old ones for later recollection. Similar to blackouts from a binge drinking session, some memories may be recovered while some will be as if they never happened. It is also possible to remember these moments incorrectly. In the case of alcohol-induced dementia, memories become lost, and they may never be recovered. As the hippocampus becomes damaged, it may become irreversible, meaning new memories will not form and old memories will not be remembered.
Alcohol-Induced Dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by a severe and prolonged vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. This deficiency can cause brain damage that, when left untreated, can be permanent. Those who drink alcohol for prolonged periods are more likely to be affected by Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome because poor eating habits and malnutrition cause vitamin deficiencies.
The difference between alcohol-induced dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is that alcohol-induced dementia does not have a definitive cause. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a vitamin deficiency, and while other conditions such as diabetes can cause it, alcoholism is the highest reason for its cause. Those who drink heavily or frequently experience alcohol poisoning are very likely to develop this condition.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome has two different stages: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome. In Wernicke encephalopathy, the condition is considered acute, and there is a chance the brain can repair itself before permanent damage occurs. Symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include:
- Changes in vision
- Low blood pressure
- Lack of muscle coordination
As the disease progresses, it will cross into Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome. This is a chronic condition, and the damage to the brain is not likely to improve. Symptoms include:
- Severe short-term memory loss
Wernicke-Korsakoff Diagnosis and Prognosis
Only a medical professional can diagnose Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. A blood test will indicate if thiamine levels are low and an MRI/CT scan can show areas of the brain with damage. If the progression is acute as in Wernicke encephalopathy, proper vitamin restoration and discontinued drinking can heal the brain. This does not happen overnight, and it can take months or years to reverse the damage.
If the condition has progressed to Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome, the prognosis is not as forthcoming. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 50% of people recover from episodes of Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome but do not recover completely. 25% of people experience no change and fewer chances of recovery. Life expectancy is average in those who recover and abstain from alcohol use, but symptoms can be present for the rest of life.
Seeking Treatment for Alcoholism and Dementia
Forgetting where you put your wallet or keys is not always a cause for alarm. When these episodes become more frequent and are paired with stumbling, memory trouble, and vision or speech, it is time to seek help. Turning to alcohol has been a crutch for dealing with stress, trauma, or just everyday life. Turning to treatment will not only help you rediscover yourself and develop healthy coping skills, but it can also help stop the progression of brain damage that can lead to dementia. Your health matters more than any drink ever could, and taking back control is the most empowering decision you can make for yourself. Recovery from alcoholism is possible, and it can begin today.
If you or someone you love is experiencing signs of dementia and alcohol use disorder, help is not far away. At Clean Recovery Centers, our goal is to help our clients get clean, live clean, and stay clean. With a unique, three-phase approach to addiction treatment, we tailor our program to address each aspect of addiction: spiritual, social, physical, and mental. Call us today at (888) 330-2532 to learn more about our program offerings.
What are the signs of alcohol-induced dementia?
Signs of alcohol-induced dementia include balance difficulties, difficulty planning, executing, or logically thinking on tasks, unable to remember events or recall past experiences, impaired learning, and changes in personality or behavior.
Can alcohol-induced dementia be reversed?
If diagnosed early and abstaining from drinking, alcohol-induced dementia can improve and eventually fully heal.
What is the life expectancy of someone with alcohol-induced dementia?
Life expectancy is not usually affected by alcohol-induced dementia, however, quality of life may be affected by the condition.