Will Years of Heavy Drinking Cause Brain Damage?

The beer belly and a life of morning hangovers may or may not be an acceptable price for a party lifestyle – but are those nightly drinking binges worth irreversible brain damage?

Alcohol, when consumed regularly and in excess, has no health benefits and harms many of the body’s organs and systems, including the brain. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to a host of neurological problems and even severe cognitive declines.

Alcohol is toxic to the brain and a life of overindulgence can have some tragic consequences. Here is a brief overview of some of the more common forms of alcohol-related brain damage.

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Chronic thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiencies can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a syndrome characterized by memory problems, a loss in cognitive functioning and in severe cases, death. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is also known colloquially as “wet brain.”

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that as many as 80 percent of alcoholics are deficient in thiamine, though only a small percentage of these people will develop Wernicke-Korsakoff. Alcoholics become deficient in thiamine through:

  • Insufficient nutritional intake (liquid lunches don’t have vitamin B1)
  • Alcohol causing limited absorption of thiamine into the body
  • Alcohol reducing the body’s ability to use the limited thiamine it does absorb

Insufficient thiamine levels lead to problems in brain cell metabolism, particularly in the cerebellum and in the frontal lobes. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome very closely resembles Alzheimer’s disease, as people with the disorder may remember events from childhood clearly, but forget what they did or said only minutes before. Wernicke-Korsakoff impairs the brain’s ability to form new memories.

Other symptoms of the disorder include:

  • A dragging or staggering stride
  • Mental confusion
  • Living in a fantasy world that is perceived to be true
  • Paralyzed eye movements

If caught in the early stages, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be treated through significant vitamin injections. In later stages, the condition is incurable and fatal.

Brain Shrinkage

Our brains shrink as we age but chronic heavy drinking accelerates the rate of brain shrinkage substantially. And the more you drink, the greater the shrinkage. This effect seems more pronounced in women than men. Brain volume declines are indicative of cognitive declines.

Liver Disease Related Brain Damage (Hepatic Encephalopathy)

Heavy chronic drinking is strongly associated with liver disease, including alcoholic cirrhosis. Alcoholic cirrhosis greatly compromises the liver’s ability to function, allowing certain toxins to build up in the body. Two of these toxins, manganese and ammonia, can enter the brain, causing brain cell death and a condition known as hepatic encephalopathy.

Symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy include:

  • Changes in personality
  • Mood or anxiety disorders
  • Sleep problems
  • A reduced attention span
  • Shaking hands
  • A loss of coordination

Hepatic encephalopathy can be fatal, and liver transplant can result in a significant improvement of brain function.

Alcoholic Neuropathy

Long-term heavy drinking can harm nerve tissue in the body and lead to a condition known as alcoholic neuropathy. The most common symptoms of the condition are burning or tingling sensations in the feet that can last for years.

Other symptoms include:

  • Nerve pain
  • Pins and needles
  • Muscle weakness
  • A loss of sensation (numbness)
  • Erectile dysfunction and incontinence
  • Nausea

Patients diagnosed with alcoholic neuropathy must stop drinking to prevent further nerve damage. Abstinence from alcohol usually reduces the severity of symptoms and prevents further damage, but existing nerve damage is, sadly, permanent.

Alcohol-Related Dementia

Alcohol can kill brain cells directly, or nutritional problems associated with alcoholism can do the damage. Chronic heavy drinking is associated with an increased risk for an alcohol-related form of dementia.

Heavy drinkers are less likely to consume adequate levels of essential vitamins and minerals and additionally, alcohol’s effects on the gastrointestinal system can limit the body’s ability to absorb these essential vitamins and minerals.

Alcohol-related dementias are not the same as Alzheimer’s disease, though they share some similarities. Alcohol-related dementia impacts cognitive capacities more globally, affecting far more than just memory. In addition to memory problems, symptoms of alcohol-related dementia include:

  • Changes in personality
  • Altered judgment
  • A reduction in social skills
  • A reduction in logical planning skills
  • A loss of coordination

If caught in the early stages, abstinence can lead to substantial symptom improvement.

Heavy Drinking Comes at a Price

Some people drink heavily for years without apparent harm; others aren’t so lucky. Lengthy alcohol abuse is associated with an increased risk of early death and for some, saddening cognitive declines.

Heavy drinkers who can reduce or eliminate their drinking greatly reduce their risks for cognitive problems later in life. Heavy drinkers who cannot reduce their drinking may want to consider seeking alcohol treatment.