Excessive drinking over a long period can lead to a variety of health problems. Alongside liver disease and cancer, dementia and alcoholism have also been linked. This condition is specifically referred to as alcohol-induced dementia, and people who engage in long-term binge drinking or heavy drinking and fail to realize their problematic relationships with alcohol are at a higher risk of experiencing cognitive impairment and memory loss in the future. Below is more on what alcoholic dementia is, how it impacts your life, and how you can avoid it.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
Before we can understand alcohol-induced dementia, we should first look into alcohol’s effects on the brain. So let’s start with this question: what part of the brain does alcohol affect? People who have been drinking large amounts of alcohol for long periods run the risk of developing serious and often irreversible changes in the brain.
According to research, alcohol mainly affects the part of the brain called the cerebellum. The cerebellum is responsible for coordinating movements and even some forms of learning. It also appears to be particularly sensitive to the effects of thiamine deficiency and is the region that is most frequently damaged by chronic alcohol consumption. This leads us to our next question.
Can Alcoholism Cause Dementia?
Yes, alcoholism can cause dementia. Alcohol-induced dementia is an umbrella term that covers two alcohol-related syndromes: alcohol-related dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. While both lead to different symptoms, dementia from alcoholism and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome are both caused by long-term, heavy drinking.
According to research, up to 80% of alcoholics have a thiamine deficiency, and some of these individuals will go on to develop serious brain disorders such as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) and dementia as a result. WKS is a disease that consists of two separate syndromes: a short-lived and severe condition called Wernicke’s encephalopathy and a long-term condition known as Korsakoff’s psychosis.
The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, and problems with muscle coordination. Patients with this condition may be too confused to find their way out of a room or may not be able to walk. However, not everyone shows all or even some of these classic signs.
Furthermore, approximately 80% to 90% of alcoholics with Wernicke’s encephalopathy will develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, a chronic syndrome characterized by persistent learning and memory problems. Patients with this symptom are frequently forgetful, become quickly frustrated, and struggle with walking and coordination.
While these individuals may struggle to remember old information (otherwise known as retrograde amnesia), it’s also difficult for them to “save” new information (otherwise known as anterograde amnesia). This symptom is the most striking. For instance, patients with Korsakoff’s psychosis can discuss in detail an event in their lives and not even remember having the conversation an hour later.
Thiamine Deficiency and Memory Loss
So what’s the driving factor of alcohol-induced dementia? Impairment in memory can be a result of direct damage to the brain cells or damage due to a lack of thiamine, also called vitamin B1. Korsakoff syndrome is specifically related to vitamin B1 deficiencies in alcoholics. Certain areas of the brain – particularly the cerebellum – may suffer from vitamin deficiencies, which are associated with memory loss.
Alcohol-induced dementia is also related to white matter loss in the brain. This is tissue in the brain that is made up of nerve fibers. These fibers are also referred to as axons, which are covered by a white matter called myelin. This matter speeds up signals sent between brain cells, allowing the cells to rapidly send and receive messages.
White matter shrinkage in areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, corpus callosum, and cerebellum, is associated with alcohol-induced dementia. Since alcohol can cause dementia, it’s urgent to know the signs of early-stage alcohol dementia that can allow you to get treatment as soon as possible.
Common Alcohol Dementia Symptoms and Signs
The signs of alcohol-induced dementia could be easily overlooked or confused with symptoms of other conditions. You may think these signs are mild, but they could actually point to memory loss caused by chronic drinking.
Alcohol-induced dementia symptoms include:
- Changes in character or personality
- Decrease in reflexes and motor movement
- Difficulty learning
- Inability to retain or recall information
- Inability to think clearly
- Increased heart rate
- Lack of coordination
- Low blood pressure
- Low body temperature
- Mood swings
- Muscle weakness or deterioration
- Problems with physical balance and movement
- Sporadic eye movement
These symptoms can vary from person to person, so it’s important to undergo a clinical assessment with a medical professional to receive a diagnosis. Brain scans will show areas where the brain has shrunk in individuals with alcohol-related memory problems, particularly in their frontal lobes. Therefore, receiving medical care can make a difference in diagnosing and treating the problem.
Prevent Dementia From Alcoholism With Treatment
Considering that alcohol dementia is the result of long-term and heavy alcohol abuse, the simplest way to prevent developing memory-related disorders is to quit drinking. However, this isn’t always simple for people who’ve been drinking heavily for long periods.
Quitting alcohol after years of heavy drinking or for people with alcohol use disorders can be nearly impossible and even dangerous without professional support. Receiving addiction treatment can help those struggling with long-term alcohol abuse quit, get sober, and avoid alcohol-induced dementia and other health concerns.
This is where our Southern California rehab comes in. Following a clinical assessment to determine the exact route of treatment, patients with severe alcohol use disorders will usually begin their recovery journey with alcohol detox treatment.
Our California detox services provide patients with medically-led support that addresses their withdrawal symptoms and allows them to move forward in their treatment on a clean slate. In addition to our inpatient services, our facility also offers a variety of aftercare programs to help clients stay on track once they complete their programs.
At Banyan Palm Springs, get the help you need to sustain sobriety. Find out more about our residential treatment by calling Banyan Treatment Centers today at 888-280-4763 or giving us your contact information so we can reach out to you.
- NCBI - Change in the Brain’s White Matter: The role of the brain’s white matter in active learning and memory may be underestimated
- NIH - Alcohol’s Damaging Effects On the Brain