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Alcohol and Dementia: What You Should Know

By Zawn Villines
Medically Reviewed by Arpan Parikh, MD, MBA on August 02, 2021
Alcoholism can damage your brain and increase the risk of dementia. Here's what you need to know about the risk, and how to reduce it.

 

Excessive drinking may cause brain damage and increase the risk of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

Can Alcohol Cause Dementia?

People who do not binge drink or become dependent on alcohol do not need to worry about an alcohol-dementia link, says Nikola Djordjevic, MD. "Alcohol consumption in moderate amounts has not been found to cause dementia or any other cognitive impairments. However, excessive use and abuse in old age have been associated with changes in brain structure that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and variants of dementia," he explains.

A 2018 study found that heavy drinking increased the risk of dementia by about three times. Alcoholism may increase the risk of certain medical conditions that damage the cardiovascular system, including high blood pressure. Research increasingly links both heart disease and heart disease risk factors to an elevated risk of developing dementia.

Alcoholism may also cause a rare type of dementia called Korsakoff syndrome, according to The Alzheimer's Association. This dementia appears when a person is deficient in thiamine/vitamin B1, a deficiency that is more prevalent among chronic alcoholics.

Alcohol-Related Dementia Symptoms

The symptoms of alcohol-related dementia depend on the type of dementia a person has. Though most people are familiar with Alzheimer's, there are dozens of types of dementia. Primary progressive aphasia, for example, attacks speech and language, slowly robbing a person of their ability to speak, while Korsakoff syndrome may cause a person to lie without realizing it.

Some warning signs that a person may have dementia include:

  • Unexplained changes in personality.
  • Trouble solving complex problems.
  • Difficulty with navigation. You might get lost following a familiar path.
  • Short-term memory problems. It's normal to occasionally forget a piece of information. It's not normal to be unable to participate in a conversation because you can't remember anything.
  • Cognitive problems that make daily life difficult. For example, a person might have trouble following a recipe.
  • Poor decision-making.
  • Confusion with place or time. For example, a person might forget they're in the 21st century.
  • Trouble with communicating, such as chronic word-finding difficulties or increased difficulty reading or understanding speech.

Get Help Now

Quitting now is the very best thing you can do to reduce your risk of long-term alcohol-related health issues. Talk to a doctor about treatment options, which may include:

  • therapy to help you better manage your emotions and establish new coping skills
  • family counseling to help you make amends and get support from your family
  • support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • medical care to manage any health consequences of alcoholism
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