Over time, excessive alcohol use can cause dementia-like symptoms. But these effects can be slowed — and sometimes reversed — if you stop drinking.
“Alcoholic dementia” is an older term commonly used to describe the medical condition now known as alcohol-related dementia or alcohol-induced major neurocognitive disorder. These terms are used interchangeably and describe a severe form of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD).
ARD is a type of cognitive impairment that occurs as a result of heavy alcohol consumption over a long period.
Note that alcohol-related dementia is sometimes confused with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. While the two conditions share some similarities, they have different causes. Wernicke-Korkasoff syndrome is caused by a thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency, though heavy alcohol use can be an underlying cause of this deficiency.
The symptoms of alcohol-related dementia and age-related dementia are fairly similar.
Potential symptoms of alcohol-related dementia include issues with:
- memory (especially your ability to form new long-term memories)
- focus and concentration
- problem-solving and planning
- emotional control
- physical balance, even when not drinking
Symptoms tend to develop gradually and worsen over time if you continue drinking.
These changes can greatly impact your daily life and may make it difficult to perform simple tasks like cooking a meal or paying your bills. Over time, they can also impact your mood, personality, and social skills.
The brains of participants who were drinking three units of alcohol a day over the previous month had reductions in both white and gray matter, making their brains appear three and a half years older. For reference, one unit is considered a half pint of beer or a small glass of wine.
If you think you may be experiencing alcohol-related dementia, talk with a healthcare professional.
They’ll likely start by doing a physical exam and asking about your physical and psychological symptoms. They may also ask you to complete a questionnaire about symptoms related to your memory and cognitive abilities.
Depending on your symptoms, you might also undergo a brain scan to rule out other concerns, like a stroke or tumor, or brain bleeding caused by physical trauma. You may also get a brain scan to rule out other potential conditions, like stroke, tumor, or a brain bleed caused by physical trauma.
All of the information gathered during the diagnostic process will also help them rule out other types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.
The first part of treatment for alcohol-related dementia aims to help you stop drinking alcohol. This can take several weeks, and you may need to do this under medical supervision.
If you’ve been drinking alcohol for a long time, you might experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including disorientation, agitation, and mood changes. But your care team can prescribe medications to help with withdrawal symptoms. You might also receive fluids, salts, and thiamine by injection.
Once the withdrawal process is over, you’ll likely be referred to a mental health professional for extra support. Joining a support group can also be helpful at this stage of treatment.
Often, symptoms stop progressing and even improve after you stop drinking. But in some cases, your care team may prescribe medication like rivastigmine or memantine, which are typically used for managing Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
Is alcohol-related dementia reversible?
If you stop drinking, it’s possible to at least partially reverse the effects of alcohol-related dementia.
Alcoholic dementia, or alcohol-related dementia, is a severe form of alcohol-related brain damage caused by many years of heavy drinking. It can lead to dementia-like symptoms, including memory loss, erratic mood, and poor judgment.
If you suspect you have this condition, reach out to a healthcare professional as soon as possible to discuss treatment options. The sooner you treat alcohol-related dementia, the better your chances of recovery.
If you’re concerned about your alcohol use but aren’t sure about next steps or don’t feel comfortable talking with a healthcare professional, the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), offers free, confidential support.