The Link Between Alcohol & Dementia

It’s no secret that abusing alcohol can result in diminished cognitive abilities, impaired memory, and poor decision-making skills, but most people probably believe that these and other similar effects last only as long as the drug is in their system.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Excessive use of alcohol can result in a form of dementia that is marked by long-term (and, if left untreated, permanent) damage to a person’s ability to learn, remember, and perform other mental functions. According to The Alcohol Dementia Dictionary, alcohol-related dementia is believed to be responsible for about 10 percent of all cases of cognitive deterioration. (For comparison purposes, Alzheimer’s Disease causes about 60 percent of dementia cases.)

About the Disorder

Though the causes are different, symptoms of alcohol-related dementia are virtually inseparable from those caused by Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of cognitive impairment. Common signs include difficulties with memory, language, and the performance of familiar tasks; confusion and disorientation; changes in personality; and drastically impaired judgment.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), persistent alcohol-induced dementia can be diagnosed if the following conditions are met:

  • The development of multiple cognitive deficits manifested by both:
    1. Memory impairment (impaired ability to learn new information or to recall previously learned information)
    2. One (or more) of the following cognitive disturbances: a) Aphasia (language disturbance) b) Apraxia (impaired ability to carry out motor activities despite intact motor function) c) Agnosia (failure to recognize or identify objects despite intact sensory function) d) Disturbance in executive functioning (i.e., planning, organizing, sequencing, abstracting)
  • B. The cognitive deficits in criteria A1 and A2 each cause significant impairment in social or occupational functioning and represent a significant decline from a previous level of functioning.
  • C. The deficits do not occur exclusively during the course of a delirium and persist beyond the usual duration of substance intoxication or withdrawal.
  • D. There is evidence from the history, physical examination, or laboratory findings that deficits are etiologically related to the persisting effects of substance use (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication).
Who Is at Risk?

Heavy Drinkers – Alcohol-related dementia does not result from one episode of alcohol abuse; it is the culmination of extended exposure to unhealthy amounts of the drug. Thus, heavy long-term drinkers are at greatest risk for developing this condition.

Drinkers with Poor Diets – Dementia can result from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. Heavy drinkers who are also failing to eat properly are more likely to damage their livers and become malnourished – two precursors to the development of alcohol-related dementia.

Older Adults – Because alcohol-related dementia results from long-term abuse of alcohol, most cases present themselves in patients who are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, though the disease has been known to manifest in younger people.

Women – Perhaps because their bodies process and are affected by alcohol differently than men do, women who drink heavily are at risk for the alcohol-related dementia. This does not mean that the disorder is a single-sex offender, though, as many men suffer from alcohol-related dementia as well.

Prevention & Treatment

Unlike other forms of cognitive diminishment (such as those that are related to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases) alcohol-related dementia is entirely preventable – individuals who don’t abuse alcohol are at no risk for contracting this disorder.

For those who have begun to show symptoms, there is some good news, too, as many patients who are in the early stages of the disease have had their dementia reversed with treatment that includes alcohol abstention, diet improvement, and vitamin replacement therapy.

The key to preventing or treating alcohol-related dementia is stopping the pattern of alcohol abuse. A wide range of alcohol treatment resources are available to provide whatever help is needed, including 12-step support programs, outpatient therapy opportunities, and residential rehabilitation and recovery facilities.