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Can Alcoholism Cause Dementia?

Over time, alcoholism can wreak havoc on the body and mind in countless ways. From organ and immune system function to memory and cognition, excessive alcohol consumption adversely affects some of the most vital parts of the body and brain. One of the most worrisome potential outcomes of alcoholism is brain damage, which can present in many forms. Issues with memory, executive cognitive function, and speech can occur. Moreover, alcoholism may increase the risk of dementia, a group of symptoms associated with decline in cognitive functions such as memory, speech, and daily functioning. The result is what’s called, “alcohol-related dementia”.

Heavy Drinking and Risk of Dementia

Research shows that heavy drinking increases a person’s risk for dementia. One study found that heavy alcohol use was “a contributing factor in 21 to 24% of cases of dementia”. Other research found that “drinking alcohol was significantly associated with increased dementia risk,” especially drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Alcoholism was also found to be related to early onset dementia, with alcoholism-related dementia (ARD) appearing in 10% of early onset dementia cases versus only 1% of late-onset dementia cases in the study.

Alcohol-Related Dementia

Researchers acknowledge alcohol-related dementia as a distinct phenomenon resulting from the effects of heavy alcohol use. However, they also state that ARD is difficult to study because of the similarity of its symptoms to other forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. The brains of people with alcohol-induced dementia display a variety of differences when compared to non-drinkers, among them frontal lobe shrinkage, “sulcal widening (enlarged spaces between folds of the brain), and ventricular enlargement”. One study pointed to common symptoms of “peripheral neuropathy, ataxia, [and] sparing of language,” while another noted difficulties with “visuospatial functions, memory, and executive tasks”. Crucially, both of these studies acknowledge the possibility for partial recovery with sustained abstinence from alcohol.

Alcoholic Conditions and Dementia Symptoms

A number of conditions that may result from alcoholism can cause symptoms associated with dementia. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a neurological disorder caused by a deficiency in thiamine, is associated with alcohol abuse and may cause impaired vision, memory, and ataxia. Hepatic encephalopathy, a result of severe liver disease that can be exacerbated by alcohol abuse, can cause confusion, memory loss, changes in behavior, and more. Pellagra, characterized by symptoms like severe skin issues, diarrhea, and various mood and behavioral difficulties, can be caused by alcoholism.

Alcohol and Dementia: Correlation or Causation?

Scientists are still studying how these various conditions work, interact, and their relation to alcohol. Genetics obviously play a large role in who develops dementia, and the interaction with alcoholism is still not completely understood. Identifying a direct causal relationship between alcoholism and various forms of dementia is difficult, but there is no doubt that heavy alcohol consumption can lead to dementia-like symptoms through a variety of pathways. All involve damage to critical organs and bodily functions, on top of the stress and damage that alcohol abuse already presents in one’s life. With proper treatment and abstinence from alcohol, however, the effects of many such conditions can be mitigated or reversed. This is why seeking professional treatment for alcoholism is so important.

Seeking Alcoholism Treatment

Granite Recovery Centers has 12 drug rehab centers presenting a continuum of care for people struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse. Our alcohol rehab programs combine 12-step work with proven clinical care, to help overcome Alcohol Use Disorders comprehensively. If you or your loved one is experiencing cognitive effects from alcohol abuse, detoxing and achieving lasting abstinence may be the only way to mitigate or reverse the damage. From medical detox from alcohol to outpatient programs, our compassionate and experienced professionals are here to help. No matter where you are with your struggle with alcoholism, Granite Recovery Centers’ caring and professional team can help. Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in the event of an emergency.

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