Can Alcoholism Cause Dementia?

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Can Alcoholism Cause Dementia?

Alcoholism can cause dementia because excessive consumption of it can lead to brain damage.

Alcohol-related dementia is common in adults in their 40s and 50s in the UK. Alcohol-related dementia accounts for about 10% of all cases of young-onset dementia.  Abbeycare offers rehab for dementia patients with alcoholism in the UK.

Some studies even showed that alcohol abuse might increase the risk of other neurological issues and cognitive decline.

Other alcohol-related brain damage:

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
  • Atrophy
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Neuropathy
  • Myopathy
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

These patients may have a constellation of symptoms, including difficulty remembering or forming new memories, poor judgment, depression, and agitation.

Studies found that heavy drinking might lead to a more severe type of dementia than was previously thought.

Alcohol-induced dementia may lead to neurologic problems in drinkers who began drinking before age 45 compared to those who started drinking between ages 30 and 45.

Much of what happens with dementia comes from brain areas that make it impossible for people to maintain alertness to keep their brains safe from harm.

If people don't have adequate oxygen or nutrition or any other stimulation type, brain cells can degenerate.

Scientists have found that some of the damage caused by excessive alcohol over long periods is similar to that caused by any brain damage.

Alcohol is a potent neurotoxin. While it doesn’t cause brain cell death, it disturbs the normal brain architecture, especially the neurons. Alcohol works its way through the blood and rescinds nerve cells.

This causes brain decline that eventually causes irreversible brain damage and dementia.

The brain is a dense bundle of highly interconnected nerve cells called the central nervous system. It contains structures called brain regions.

In the brain, the two major brain regions that have nerve cells are called the cerebral cortex.

This extends from the forehead and tips into the front of the brain and the cerebellum. The latter lies below the brain stem on the brain's opposite side.

Both regions include a thick lining of neurons that are the specialized brain cells responsible for processing information.

The nerve cells are coated with a layer of protein called myelin, which protects the cell from harsh chemicals called free radicals. The layers of myelin expand, wrapping around nerve cells and acting as a shield around them.

Studies show that alcohol damages the myelin on brain cells.

When the alcohol is consumed, free radicals enter the bloodstream and attack the myelin sheaths, destroying the protective layer and severing connections between nerve cells.

Several studies suggest that heavy drinking is linked to a loss of brain tissue, called atrophy, or brain shrink.

In the brain, the nerve cells are "crushed" by the alcohol compound, with the myelin sheaths stripped away also.

What does alcoholic dementia look like?

You can tell if some have alcoholic dementia if they have trouble with their memory, decision-making, or communicating.

Severe alcoholic dementia may even change personalities and behaviours.

There is no single way to determine what alcoholic dementia is like.

Different researchers use different methods of assessing alcoholic dementia, so there are many other diagnoses.

Some researchers think alcoholic dementia is different from Alzheimer's, and they use other measures to define it.

Below are examples of how these studies assess alcoholic dementia:

Memory loss

Patients have a hard time recognizing familiar people and places or remembering how to do basic things. They are even uncertain about the most familiar facts about themselves.

Confusion

Misplacing items, getting lost in the house or outside it, unable to read a map or follow directions.

Changing speech and communication

Alcohol-related dementia individuals often have communication problems, such as frequent word-finding difficulties or trouble hearing or interpreting speech.

Intense anxiety or depression

Dementia patients experience intense anxiety or depression due to changes in the standard patterns of brain function.

They may become fearful or lose the ability to make sense of the world.

Difficulty making decisions

Scientists are learning that dementia patients experience difficulty in decision-making more so than older adults.

Slow to engage in activities

Dementia makes it difficult for patients to remember words and can reduce the ability to interact and respond.

The precise mechanisms underlying the difficulties of the slow response of people with dementia to visual information are still unclear.

Low mood

Dementia patients come in a range of moods, ranging from joyful and excitable to depressed and withdrawn.

Physical pain, environmental causes, and inadequate communication may all lead to moodiness and irritability.

Not wanting to go to bed or sundowning

People with dementia often experience sundowning – the restlessness, frustration, irritability, or discomfort that escalate when daylight fades.

Sundowning lasts all night, thus, making it difficult for people with dementia to fall asleep.

The clinician and family need to be aware of these symptoms. If a person displays any of these symptoms, you should promptly identify the type of dementia the patient is suffering and refer them to a specialist.

The worst that can happen is that they accumulate a high blood-alcohol content, but they often get the same buzz they expect without any lasting consequences.

Here are factors in determining how it can affect your brain.

Quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption

This includes how much and how often the person drinks alcohol. Various lifestyle and neurological tests can determine the levels of alcohol in the body.

Age and how long the person started drinking

Young adults who drink in excess have a higher risk of dementia when they’re older. Those who drink above their limits are more likely to develop dementia early.

Health

Excessive alcohol use may worsen existing health issues such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular illnesses, or liver disease.

Breast, mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, and colon cancers are also common.

Family history

Research demonstrates that alcoholism develops in families whose members are frequently exposed to alcohol at home and receive repeated treatments for addiction.

Excessive alcohol can impair cognition and cause short-term mental changes in some people. This is true even when they do not necessarily show clinical signs of impairment.

One way to measure these effects is through neuroimaging or the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). 

Various tests may include:

  • Knowing the percentage of alcohol in the body
  • Whether the person suffers from atrophy
  • If there are problems with memory and comprehension
  • Decrease in reflexes
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Difficulties in speech and communication

The degree of alcohol exposure directly correlates with the severity of alcohol addiction, the consequences of alcoholism, and life expectancy.

For patients with alcohol problems, this is often a problematic knowledge to grasp.

If you know you or someone else has dementia, the best way to prevent the worsening of their symptoms is to keep alcohol out of the picture.

Should dementia patients drink alcohol?

Alcoholic drinks can be a problem for dementia patients. Patients who have alcohol-induced dementia should not drink alcohol.

Also, alcohol interferes with the absorption of certain medications needed to treat dementia.

You may serve non-alcoholic options like sparkles, mocktail juices, or healthy smoothies.

Remember, alcohol can significantly impact your cognitive skills, sleep, mood, and more. Those limits increase for overweight or obese individuals.

Alcohol consumption increases a person’s risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or high blood pressure.

Dementia patients should cut out alcohol and do the following:

Slowly limit your alcohol intake

If you are concerned about your health, perhaps start drinking one glass of wine a day or a mixed drink. It’s hard to stop drinking altogether.

Don’t stop drinking sharply, or you'll experience withdrawal symptoms that can worsen your dementia.

Set up a sober team

The team should include friends and family who are sincere in supporting your sobriety.

 This means: giving you help when you need it, giving you some space when you're ready and encouraging you when you've had an excellent job.

Tell people about your progress

Tell family and friends that you don't drink alcohol. Talking about your progress will help keep you in check of your alcohol-free goals.

Remember, you're a recovering alcoholic

Ensure they understand that you're still recovering, and that you're not going to drink at all for a while.

Remember that it's important to tell people when you're going to stop drinking alcohol.

Sit with your problem

Take time to go through all the drunken feelings and the problem that alcohol is supposed to solve.

Remember the problems you're trying to solve. Let them go. Have lots of quiet time when you don't drink.

Drink more water

Scientists say healthy adults will stay healthier and longer if they increase the water content of their diet.

What’s more, drinking water gives you a “calming and refreshing” feeling while flushing toxins out of your system and alleviating stress.

Find a physical activity that you’ll love

Exercise is a proven mood booster, and it helps ease stress.

Also, hobbies take people out of their comfort zones, which is a highly productive way to manage depression.

Can Alcoholic Dementia Be Reversed?

In the early stages dementia, there are ways to reduce or reverse the problem. This includes abstaining from alcohol and improving diet as alcohol can cause dementia. 

Replacing vitamins, especially vitamin B1 and thiamine, can help. Thiamine is essential to reduce some of the harmful effects of alcohol and is an important supplement for those who drink.

What is the alcohol dementia life expectancy?

Some patients heal entirely, while others suffer from severe complications. This highly depends on several factors, including treatments and sobriety.

If the patient has Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome left untreated, about 10% to 20% of those affected will die in a matter of months.

For those who recover from alcohol-induced dementia, though, there is a widely accepted life expectancy of five to ten years in the general population.

Still, alcohol-induced dementia has a high mortality rate, with over 70% dying within three years.

If you're drinking alcohol regularly for years, the chances are that you might shorten your life expectancy.

Get out of that habit now. Commit yourself that you're not going to drink in excess anymore.

When it comes to getting help with your alcohol addiction, the first thing you should do is educate yourself.

  • You should find a reputable rehabilitation centre.
  • It would help if you got an assessment to determine your addiction's severity and determine how long you have been drinking.
  • It would help if you considered other treatment options, such as alcohol detoxification, cognitive therapy, or intensive outpatient programmes.
  • You should find out about treatment programmes that are available in other hospitals.
  • You should do research and educate yourself about the available tools to help you recover from alcoholism.

Supportive friends and family members are also a critical factor in successfully battling addiction.

Know who you can turn to when you are struggling with addiction. Make the call to your rehab centre. Ask for a referral to a doctor who is knowledgeable about alcoholism treatment.

You may need support and guidance from other alcoholics who have gone through the recovery process before you.

Support will help you overcome the addiction to alcohol and be the key to your recovery.

Conclusion

Alcohol-related dementia is characterized by abnormal memory or cognitive impairments that develop after years of alcohol abuse.

Studies about alcohol-related dementia highlight the importance of recognizing early symptoms.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these signs - don't wait.

There are licensed treatment centres for Abbeycare Scotland or Abbeycare Gloucester, where you can get the help you need.


About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Pete has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. To read more about Pete visit his LinkedIn profile.