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Alcohol-Related Dementia: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Last Updated: February 28, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Alcohol-related dementia isn’t technically a medical term, but it is often used to describe brain-related problems caused by alcohol. Alcohol-related dementia often develops in those who have used alcohol heavily for several years and results in memory problems and cognitive issues that are typically permanent.

What Is Alcoholic Dementia?

Alcoholic dementia is an umbrella term used to describe memory and cognitive problems caused by alcohol. While it is not technically a medical condition, it is often used to characterize several different medical conditions caused by alcohol use.

Conditions described as “alcohol-related dementia” may include:

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: This brain condition is caused by low levels of thiamine that occur with heavy alcohol use. In its later stage, it can cause irreversible brain damage and memory problems.
  • Alzheimer’s disease: This is the most common cause of dementia and is not necessarily related to alcohol. Alcohol can, however, significantly increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Nerve cell damage: Alcohol is known to damage nerve cells and cause the brain to shrink when used heavily. This can cause damage that may be dementia-like.
  • Head injuries: Alcohol is involved in many traumatic brain injuries. These injuries can cause dementia-like symptoms and may be an alcohol-related cause of cognitive deficits.

There are many ways in which dementia and dementia-like symptoms can be caused by alcohol. Whenever someone references alcoholic dementia, it is often one of these conditions that they are referring to. 

Alcohol-Induced Dementia Symptoms

Because alcohol-induced dementia is not a formal medical condition, there are no symptoms specifically connected with it. Often, the term is used to describe dementia-like symptoms that are occurring. Symptoms of dementia include:

  • Memory loss that affects day-to-day abilities
  • Problems performing normal tasks
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding
  • Forgetting time or place
  • Impairments in judgment
  • Difficulty with abstract thinking
  • Frequently misplacing things
  • Changes in mood or behaviors
  • Personality changes
  • Decreased initiative

Diagnosis for Alcohol-Related Dementia

Because alcohol-related dementia is more of an informal term than it is an actual medical condition, it is not something that will be diagnosed. Rather, the underlying medical problem causing alcohol-related dementia will be diagnosed and addressed. Typically, the symptoms of dementia combined with the use of alcohol will raise suspicion for conditions often described as alcohol-related dementia. Further testing and diagnosis will be needed to determine the exact cause of the dementia-like symptoms.

Risk Factors for Alcohol-Induced Dementia

The single largest risk factor for alcohol-induced dementia is the use of alcohol. It is important to note that even a single night of drinking can increase the danger of a brain injury that leads to dementia-like symptoms. While any drinking can increase the risk of alcoholic dementia, heavy drinking over a prolonged period of time most increases this chance.

The risk of developing alcohol-related dementia may be higher for those already vulnerable to neurological problems or dementia from causes not related to alcohol. It takes a doctor to correctly predict the risk someone will develop alcoholic dementia, and even then, it can be difficult to accurately do so.

Treatment and Management of Alcohol-Induced Dementia

The treatment and management of alcohol-induced dementia will vary based on the underlying cause. Some conditions, like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, can be reversed if caught and treated early. Others, like Alzheimer’s disease, will be permanent and progressive, requiring professional help to maintain as much quality of life as possible for as long as possible.

If dementia-related symptoms are related to alcohol use, stopping alcohol is always recommended. Stopping alcohol use can help slow the progression of existing problems and reduce the risk of future problems developing. Stopping alcohol may not reverse the symptoms that have developed, but it will always be beneficial to your long-term cognitive health.

Prevention of Alcohol-Induced Dementia

There is only one way to prevent alcohol-related dementia. That is to stop drinking alcohol as soon as possible. While drinking in moderation may also prevent alcohol-induced dementia, it can be hard to control your drinking. Even when used in moderation, alcohol can eventually become addictive. When alcohol addiction develops, you are more likely to misuse it, increasing your risk of alcohol-related dementia.

Stop Alcohol-Related Brain Damage Before It Becomes a Problem

If you or someone you know has any signs of alcohol-related dementia, stopping alcohol use is absolutely essential. Alcohol-related brain damage is often irreversible. The sooner that you stop drinking, the more likely you are to preserve brain function and avoid serious deficits. Additionally, if alcohol-related brain damage is reversible, it is only reversible for a short time. Stopping alcohol use as soon as possible and getting help can provide you with the best chance possible.

At The Recovery Village Atlanta, we understand that stopping alcohol use can be easier said than done. We have a strong record of helping people struggling with alcoholism to overcome their addiction and achieve lasting freedom from alcohol. Contact us today to learn how we can help you succeed in achieving and maintaining sobriety.

Sources

MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed August 9, 2023.

Alzheimer’s Society. “Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD): what is it and who gets it?” 2023. Accessed August 9, 2023.

Alzheimer Society of Canada. “The 10 warning signs of dementia.” 2023. Accessed August 9, 2023.

Jeon, Keun Hye, et al. “Changes in Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Dementia in a Nationwide Cohort in South Korea.” Neurology, February 6, 2023. Accessed August 9, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” July 2022. Accessed August 9, 2023.