What is alcohol dementia

What is Alcohol Dementia?

According to research, alcohol is a preventable risk factor for dementia, especially early-onset dementia. The study found that 57% of those with dementia were heavy drinkers. Alcoholic dementia was once referred to as alcohol-induced major neurocognitive disorder and can negatively affect your ability to think, store and recall memories, make good decisions, and control impulses.

Another recent study of over one million participants found those who drank heavily were three times more likely to develop alcoholic dementia.

It’s important to note that light alcohol consumption is not associated with dementia or other cognitive-related disorders. Those who misuse alcohol or have alcohol use disorders seem to develop dementia and varying levels of cognitive conditions.

What is Alcoholic Dementia?

Dementia is an impairment in your ability to process thoughts and memories, making it hard to function normally. It affects millions of people worldwide and can be caused by many factors, including alcohol misuse. Dementia is like an umbrella category for other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, vascular, Lewy body, frontotemporal, and mixed dementia. It is not a natural part of aging.

Alcoholic dementia is also known as alcohol-related brain damage. Long-term misuse of alcohol can damage every part of the brain. Like an alcohol use disorder does not happen overnight, neither does alcoholic dementia. They are both gradual processes.

Alcoholic dementia unfolds in three different stages: early, middle, and late. Each stage represents the severity of symptoms.

Symptoms of Alcoholic Dementia

Symptoms will vary among people with alcoholic dementia, but you want to look out for someone who is easily distracted and cannot stay focused on a task. They may also be disorganized, cannot problem-solve, and may come across as not caring about others’ feelings. However, they do care, but their brain is damaged by alcohol misuse, affecting relationship skills.

Other symptoms include anger outbursts, irritability, poor judgment, goal-setting, and follow-through. In addition, look for personality changes, confusion, memory problems, trouble with directions, or getting lost in places that should be familiar.

Risk Factors for Alcoholic Dementia

Alcohol misuse is one risk factor for dementia but not the only one. Researchers have found the following to have a connection to the onset of dementia:

  • Medication side effects
  • An increase in brain pressure
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Family history
  • Brain injuries
  • Heart health
  • Race and ethnicity

Additional risk factors may include how often you consume alcohol, how much you consume, and your age when you first started misusing alcohol. Your gender, genetics, and lifestyle also contribute to the development of alcoholic dementia.

Alcoholic Dementia Syndromes

Neurologic diseases that may form because of heavy alcohol misuse include Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). Alcohol misuse is a well-known cause of vitamin deficiencies, especially thiamine and vitamin B1.

A lack of thiamine directly causes WKS, and it is a combination of Wernicke encephalography and Korsakoff syndrome. A few symptoms of these two diseases include mental confusion, poor coordination, eye paralysis, memory problems, and hallucinations.

Another syndrome is alcoholic neuropathy, a condition caused by alcohol damage to the nervous system. It can be worse if you are deficient in vitamins and nutrients. Symptoms include numbness and tingling, spasms, cramps, muscle weakness, sexual dysfunction, dizziness, and digestive problems.

Getting Diagnosed with Alcoholic Dementia

A family doctor may recognize the signs and symptoms of alcoholic dementia, but they should always refer you to a neurologist to get a formal diagnosis. Neurologists are specialists in the brain and nervous system and how both are affected by alcohol and other factors.

Your neurologist will run various tests that will examine the strength of your muscles, coordination, blood pressure, and lab test panels that cover hormones, vitamins, and chemicals. In addition, the following exams will help develop an accurate diagnosis:

  • Cognitive and neurological tests assess memory, learning, problem-solving, and sensory responses.
  • Brain scans can detect changes in the brain’s structure. Some use brain scans to eliminate other potential causes such as stroke or heart-related events. Brain scan techniques include computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET).
  • Psychiatric evaluations ensure your symptoms are not related to a mental health disorder. Evaluations can also assess your alcohol use disorder, which will help determine the most effective treatment.
  • Genetic testing looks at the genes you may inherit from your family.

Treatment for Alcoholic Dementia

Your doctor cannot determine the types of treatments to address dementia until you quit drinking alcohol altogether. Doctors use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 5th edition, to determine if you have an alcohol use disorder and, if so, how bad it is. Eleven criteria are used for assessment.

If you meet two or three of the criteria, you have a mild alcohol use disorder. With four to six criteria, you have a moderate alcohol use disorder. Last, six criteria, your level of alcohol misuse is severe.

Anyone with a severe alcohol use disorder will likely be recommended for a medically supervised alcohol detoxification. This will happen in an intensive inpatient detox program where you have around-the-clock medical care to ease withdrawal symptoms and make you comfortable.

Once all alcohol is out of your system, your doctor can begin reexamining your neurological capabilities.

Treatments may include the following:

  • Pharmacological therapies involving medications to avoid alcohol relapse
  • Medications to treat dementia, including supplements that boost brain functioning
  • Behavioral therapies teach skills that help you maintain recovery, including:
  • Therapies to treat dementia, including:
    • Occupational therapy
    • Home environment modifications
  • Peer support groups, including 12 Step facilitation groups and dementia groups
  • Lifestyle changes, including:
    • Nutrition and fitness
    • Routines and scheduling
    • Setting goals
  • Alternative therapies, including:
    • Music
    • Art
    • Pet
    • Massage
    • Memory games and puzzles

Getting Help for Alcohol Misuse

You won’t know how much damage alcohol has done to your brain until you stop drinking. Fortunately, you can get help for that beginning today. 

Reach out now to a local treatment center to learn more about treatment for alcoholic dementia.