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Alcohol Treatment

What Is Alcoholic Dementia? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Written By:

Alex Kudisch

Alcoholic man experiencing alcoholic dementia

Alcohol use has been a part of society since before recorded history. Mostly, drinking alcohol is a typical social pastime with no long-lasting effects on those who enjoy it.

However, when one overdoes it, significant impairment and loss of cognitive function will occur, which puts the user at risk of causing injury to themselves or those around them.

Still, it is only when occasional drinking turns into alcohol addiction that real health problems will begin.

A person with an addiction to alcohol is at risk of literally drinking themselves to an early grave, and one of the major concerns is alcoholic dementia.

What Is Alcoholic Dementia?

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Alcoholic dementia/Alcohol-related dementia is a serious neurocognitive condition caused by alcohol use disorder. In its most common form, alcohol dementia is called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

This hazardous syndrome comprises two separate disorders linked to each other but occurs independently: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff Syndrome.

Quitting drinking is the best solution for alcohol dementia, although this is not easy, especially when one is addicted to alcohol.

Is It the Same as Alzheimer’s Disease?

Strictly speaking, alcoholic dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are two separate conditions that share many similarities, such as the loss of a person’s memory.

The damage to the brain cells caused by alcohol dementia has been identified as one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s disease, especially when alcoholic dementia is accompanied by old age.

Causes of Alcohol Addiction

There are many reasons why a person can find themselves addicted to alcohol, such as:

  • Stress
  • Unsupervised underage drinking
  • Low self-esteem issues
  • Trauma
  • Mental health
  • Poor personal choices
  • Genetics
  • Family history of alcohol abuse
  • Increased drinking behavior over time

How Does Alcohol Consumption Cause Dementia?

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The most direct way alcohol use causes alcohol-related dementia is by inducing a severe thiamine deficiency in the body.

Alcohol use disorders tend to cause a wide range of nutritional deficiencies, which expose abusers to many serious health problems.

Usually, thiamine deficiency is one of the typical traits among heavy drinkers, which is why it is linked to the development of alcohol dementia.

Thiamine (vitamin B1) is a vital nutrient that helps the body convert food into energy.

Without these essential elements, such as Vitamin B1 that help the body convert food into valuable energy, many health issues will occur, because the body cannot function properly.

The lack of vitamin B1 is also compounded by the fact that heavy drinkers focus more on drinking alcohol than on eating proper meals and, therefore, never have enough energy to sustain themselves.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Alcoholic dementia has been identified as one of the direct causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, the most likely result of Thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency. This syndrome usually presents itself as Korsakoff psychosis and Wernicke’s encephalopathy.

The Life expectancy of someone with Wernicke-Korsakoff dementia is dependent on when it is treated. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is deadly if not treated early. It often occurs first and causes alcohol-related brain injury, which is one of the early stages of Korsakoff psychosis (an essential factor in diagnosing alcohol-related dementia)

Loss of cognitive function, nerve damage, and memory problems are common symptoms of Korsakoff psychosis.

Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Dementia

The early stages of alcohol dementia are often associated with confusion and memory loss. These symptoms will continue to get worse as the disease progresses.

Each of the syndromes that cause alcohol dementia contributes its particular symptoms to the disease, as follows:

Symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy

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This syndrome is typically associated with the following:

  • Drooping eyelids
  • The trouble with or loss of muscle coordination
  • Abnormal eye movement
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
  • Alcohol-related brain damage

If left untreated, Wernicke encephalopathy can cause permanent damage to the brain cells, eventually resulting in death.

Symptoms of Korsakoff Syndrome

Alcohol dementia patients often report the following:

  • Affects memory
  • Difficulty or inability to form new memories
  • Impaired ability to learn new things
  • Hallucinations
  • Making up stories, also called confabulation

Other Signs of Alcohol-Related Dementia

In some cases, the following symptoms were also reported:

  • Impulsive behavior
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Repeating things over and over again
  • Concentration problems
  • Trouble controlling emotions
  • Difficulty making plans and decisions

Signs of Alcohol Dementia

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Signs of alcohol dementia vary from person to person and are also linked to the severity of the disease. However, in most cases, you can keep a lookout for the following:

  • Unexplained changes in character and personality
  • Mental disorders
  • Difficulties appropriately stringing sentences or words together
  • Compulsive and unintentional lying
  • Confusion regarding the correct time or  place
  • Abnormal eye movement
  • Decreased and abnormal reflexes
  • Difficulties completing simple tasks
  • Fabricating stories
  • Getting lost on familiar paths
  • Memory loss and trouble with complex problem-solving
  • Muscle weakness
  • Problems with motor movement and coordination
  • Difficulties learning
  • Loss of speech

Testing for Alcohol Related Dementia

Many medical tests can be conducted to confirm alcohol-related dementia, such as testing for muscle weakness, cognitive impairment, the person’s nervous system, and other related signs.

The following are among the first things on the diagnostic and statistical manual used by doctors to test for alcohol-related dementia:

  • Detection of low levels of thiamine in the blood
  • Nervous system tests, such as those looking for low blood pressure, muscle weakness, and an increased heart rate
  • Testing of liver enzymes

Treatment for Alcohol Related Dementia

The key to successfully treating alcohol dementia is early detection. Quitting drinking alcohol, followed by complete detoxification, is also essential.

Doctors may also administer thiamine to help with muscle coordination, vision, eye movement, and confusion.

How to Help Someone with Alcohol Use Disorders

Recovering from alcohol-related dementia can take many weeks; during that time, the patient will need to remain in the hospital.

Helping someone in such a scenario involves giving them emotional support, getting them the treatment they need, and making sure they stick to the detoxification program.

Get Help for Alcoholic Dementia and Other Health Problems

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If you or someone you know suffers from alcoholic dementia, it’s time to get help as soon as possible. If left untreated, alcohol dementia can easily lead to permanent brain damage and death.

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Alex Kudisch
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