Signs of Alcohol Related Dementia

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Dementia is a spectrum of conditions and symptoms that result from the deterioration of brain and intellectual function and cognitive skills. Brain cell death due to alcohol abuse, ageing or any neurodegenerative disease often leads to a progressive decline in the ability to think and remember.

Alcohol-related dementia can present as early as the late 30s, though it is typically found in the 50 to 70+ age ranges. The primary signs of alcohol-related dementia are the inability to remember things and difficulty regulating behaviour.

Types Of Dementia

There are six basic types of dementia: alcohol-related dementia, Pick's disease, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's dementia, Lewy body dementia and vascular dementias. Diminished short-term memory is often an early symptom of all of the dementias. The signs of alcohol-related dementia go beyond short-term memory problems to include an overall reduction in brain intellectual function, with features like a loss of inhibition, an inability to plan and schedule, a disregard for the consequences of one's behaviour, and a reduction in the quality of decision-making ability.

Alcohol Abuse

Other signs of alcohol-related dementia include continuing alcohol abuse: six or more standard-size drinks per day for a man or four or more for a woman. In her 2007 book, "Therapist's Guide To Evidence-Based Relapse Prevention," Katie Witkiewitz notes "high rates of dementia in alcohol-abusing and alcohol-dependent populations." Alcoholics are at an increased risk of developing alcohol-related dementia. P.L. Carlen,, in a 1994 article published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, notes that "alcohol-related dementia is the second most common cause of dementia among older adults in institutional settings."


Heavy drinkers or alcoholics who also show an inability to remember things and have difficulty regulating behaviour may be showing the signs of alcohol-related dementia. These signs include denial, lack of motivation, being unable to care for themselves, being subject to aggressive and inappropriate sexual advances, and being unconcerned with social rules and consequences. Sufferers may become unable to hold a job and show signs of physical neglect. Alcohol-related dementia can, in some cases, have a recovery aspect.

Spectrum Of Alcohol-Related Dementia

Alcohol-related dementia is a spectrum: Individuals can show a few symptoms and still be primarily functional, or the dementia can extend to the brain-injury levels of Korsakoff's syndrome and Wernicke/Korsakoff syndrome. Both Korsakoff's syndrome and Wernicke/Korsakoff syndrome are alcohol-related dementias.

Nutritional Damage

Heavy alcohol use is often accompanied by poor eating habits and inadequate nutrition, and some of the signs of alcohol-related dementia are thought to relate to nutritional deficiencies. Alcohol has a direct effect on the absorption of thiamine and thiamine deficiency in the brain; thus, liver damage and other essential vitamin deficiencies can contribute to brain damage and shrinkage. According to the Alcohol Dementia Directory, Wernicke/Korsakoff syndrome "is caused by deficiencies in the B vitamin thiamine." Signs of inadequate nutrition include: fatigue, dizziness, weight loss, hair loss, tooth decay, yellowing skin, muscular wasting, irregular cravings, listlessness, bright or dull eyes, memory problems and stomach distension.

Korsakoff's Syndrome

An individual with Korsakoff's syndrome will show marked and specific memory loss as a strong symptom. Symptoms of Korsakoff's syndrome may include some or all of these signs: vision problems (including hazy and double vision); irregular and uncontrolled eye movements; droopy eyelids; confusion; confabulation (storytelling); the inability to form new memories; hallucinations; delusions; an awkward, uneven, stumbly and aimless gait; the inability to think clearly; and alterations in consciousness. According to the Alcohol Dementia Directory, symptoms of Korsakoff's syndrome and Wernicke/Korsakoff syndrome can be prevented and treated if caught early enough.