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  • Alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder (also called alcohol addiction) increase your risk of various health problems. 

    For example, because excessive drinking damages brain cells, it can cause a type of dementia called alcoholic dementia.

    Alcoholic Dementia

    Like other types of dementia, alcoholic dementia is a condition characterized by issues with memory, problem-solving, language, and other cognitive functions. It’s considered a form of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD)

    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

    The most common type of alcoholic dementia is called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome involves two separate conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korasakoff syndrome (also called Korsakoff psychosis). 

    Wernicke’s encephalopathy usually appears first, followed by Korsakoff syndrome. That’s because Wernicke’s encephalopathy damages the brain, and Korsakoff syndrome results from damage to parts of the brain associated with memory.  

    What Causes Alcoholic Dementia?

    Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by thiamine deficiency. Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, is an essential nutrient that helps your brain cells produce energy from sugar. When your body lacks thiamine, your brain cells can’t make enough energy to work correctly. 

    Many people who struggle with alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder experience thiamine deficiency because they have poor eating habits and don’t get enough nutrients. 

    In addition, excessive drinking can irritate your stomach lining, which prevents your body from properly absorbing thiamine and other nutrients. 

    Alcohol-Related Health Conditions Increase Risk

    Along with thiamine deficiency, excessive drinking can also cause other conditions that lead to dementia. For example, heavy drinking increases your risk of stroke, heart failure, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 

    All of these conditions increase your risk of vascular dementia, which is a type of dementia caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. 

    Alcoholic Dementia Symptoms

    As mentioned above, most cases of alcohol-related dementia involve both Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome. 

    Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:

    • confusion
    • changes in vision, such as drooping eyelids, double vision, and abnormal eye movements
    • loss of muscle coordination
    • alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and sleepiness

    If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms seek medical care right away. When left untreated, Wernicke’s encephalopathy can be fatal. 

    Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:

    • memory loss
    • memory problems, such as trouble forming new memories or learning new information
    • confabulation (making up stories to fill in memory gaps)
    • hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there) 

    Other possible symptoms of alcoholic dementia include:

    • difficulty concentrating and/or making decisions
    • trouble completing daily tasks, such as cooking or getting dressed
    • repetitive behaviors, such as asking the same question over and over
    • mood swings
    • personality changes
    • impulsive behaviors

    How To Prevent Alcoholic Dementia 

    To prevent alcoholic dementia, you should stop drinking alcohol or only drink in moderation. 

    Moderate Drinking Vs. Alcohol Use Disorder

    According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), moderate drinking means having up to one drink in one day for women and having up to two drinks in one day for men. 

    A standard “drink” is any beverage containing roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which includes:

    • 12 ounces of regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
    • 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol)
    • 5 ounces of unfortified wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
    • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor (about 40 percent alcohol)

    If you feel unable to drink in moderation, you may be struggling with alcohol use disorder. Other signs of this condition include:

    • needing to drink more over time to feel the desired effects
    • experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink alcohol
    • avoiding people and/or activities you once valued so you can spend more time drinking alcohol 
    • falling behind at work or school due to your alcohol consumption 

    Alcohol Addiction Treatment

    If you or a loved one displays these signs, seek help at an alcohol addiction treatment program. These programs provide a variety of services to help you recover from substance use and prevent alcoholic dementia. 

    Treatment services may include:

    • medical detox, where doctors help you safely get alcohol out of your system
    • medication-assisted treatment, where you’ll receive medications to reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings
    • therapy, where you can learn to manage triggers and treat any underlying mental health concerns that contribute to your alcohol abuse
    • support groups, where you can connect with other people recovering from substance abuse 
    • exercise, meditation, arts and crafts, and other activities that boost your overall sense of well-being
    • nutritional guidance to ensure you’re getting enough thiamine and other vital nutrients to repair or reduce any alcohol-related brain damage

    Most treatment centers offer both inpatient and outpatient care

    Inpatient care is recommended for people with moderate-to-severe alcohol addictions, while outpatient care may work for people with milder addictions and strong support systems at home. Talk to your doctor to determine which option is best for you. 

    To learn more, please contact us today. 

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Alzheimer’s Association - Korsakoff Syndrome
    The Lancet Public Health - Contribution of alcohol use disorders to the burden of dementia in France 2008–13: a nationwide retrospective cohort study
    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Drinking Levels Defined
    U.S. National Library of Medicine - Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on June 30, 2022
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