What Is Alcohol-Related Dementia, and Who Is at Risk?

Advice

The term “alcohol-induced dementia” has been getting a lot of attention recently, after the Lifetime documentary “Where Is Wendy Williams?” included claims that the former talk show host was facing the condition.

The ethics of the documentary are currently being debated, with some feeling that the project is exploitative and wrong, especially considering that Williams’s team, days before its release, disclosed that she’d been diagnosed with the language disorder aphasia and frontotemporal dementia.

But among the questions about whether the documentary should have ever been filmed are people wondering what alcohol-related dementia is, how common it is, and who is at risk. So we spoke to Amber Robins, MD, a double board-certified family and lifestyle medicine physician, to get information about the condition, including what causes it, what its symptoms are, and whether it can be treated.

What Is Alcohol-Related Dementia?

Alcohol-related dementia, also known as alcohol-induced dementia, is a type of cognitive impairment or brain damage that occurs as a result of long-term heavy alcohol consumption, Dr. Robins says.

For that reason, it’s likely a higher risk among people with alcohol use disorder. In one study, one in four elderly patients in treatment for AUD had alcohol-related dementia.

The condition is also closely linked to a memory disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is similarly caused by excessive alcohol intake, Dr. Robins says. The two conditions present with comparable symptoms (more on that below). But Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome happens due to low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1) in the body, which is essential for brain functioning. Alcohol-induced dementia can begin with low levels of thiamine, so the two conditions are often associated.

Diagnosis for alcohol-related dementia requires a physical and mental health exam, blood testing, and a thorough health history. Dr. Robins says brain imaging may also be necessary to rule out other types of dementia.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Dementia?

For some, symptoms of alcohol-induced dementia can present as sudden memory loss and confusion, while others may experience more gradual cognitive changes, Dr. Robins says. The condition can be tricky to spot because it presents with similar symptoms as age-related dementia, though symptoms may worsen in those who continue drinking, according to Healthline.

Symptoms include difficulties with the following:

  • Memory
  • Processing
  • Concentration or focus
  • Problem solving
  • Planning
  • Organization
  • Goal setting
  • Motivation
  • Vision
  • Emotional control
  • Decision-making and judgment
  • Physical balance (even when sober, people may feel unsteady on their feet)
  • Depression
  • Irritability

Is Alcohol-Related Dementia Treatable?

In most cases, symptoms of alcohol-related dementia stop progressing and even improve once a person quits drinking, according to the Alzheimer’s Society. However, it’s not always safe for someone with a history of heavy, chronic alcohol misuse to quit cold turkey; they may experience withdrawal symptoms such as delirium, mood swings, confusion, profuse sweating, anxiety, increased heart rate, agitation, and/or hallucinations.

If the withdrawal symptoms are severe, hospitalization may be required; a physician may also prescribe medication to mimic the effects of alcohol on the brain to reduce discomfort.

Once the withdrawal is over, most people are referred to a mental health professional and/or a support group for resources, counseling, and self-help strategies targeted at helping them continue to abstain from alcohol going forward.

For those with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, hydration and thiamine supplementation can also improve symptoms, Dr. Robins adds.

Still, alcohol-related dementia may not be entirely reversible since chronic alcohol misuse likely caused brain damage, Dr. Robins says. As a result, some people may experience long-term memory loss, confusion, and personality changes even with proper care.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has resources available, including a national 24/7 helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You can also send your zip code via text to 435748 (HELP4U) for treatment referral and information services.


Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based freelance writer and graduate from Emory University and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She’s written for POPSUGAR, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, and more. She is a mass consumer of social media and a former collegiate pole vaulter, and she cares about holistic wellness and non-stigmatizing reproductive care.


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