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What Is Alcohol-Induced Dementia?

Clients and their families

Annika Eade

April 23, 2024

What Is Alcohol-Induced Dementia?

Alcohol-induced ‘dementia’, also known as alcohol-related ‘dementia’ or alcohol-related brain damage, refers to a spectrum of cognitive impairments and neurological changes that result from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over a long period of time.  

Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to various significant health issues. Alcohol-induced ‘dementia’ relates to changes in the structural and functional alterations in the brain, contributing to cognitive deficits and dementia-like symptoms. 

Alcohol-induced ‘dementia’ typically begins with a progressive decline in cognitive function, memory impairment, executive dysfunction, and changes in behavior and personality.  

The severity of symptoms can vary depending on factors such as the duration and extent of alcohol consumption, individual susceptibility, and concurrent health conditions. 

Key features of alcohol-induced ‘dementia’ may include: 

  1. Memory Impairment 

Difficulty remembering recent events or new information, as well as gaps in long-term memory. 

  1. Impaired Executive Function 

Difficulties with planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and maintaining attention or focus. 

  1. Language and Communication Problems 

Difficulty finding words, expressing thoughts coherently, or understanding verbal or written language. 

  1. Impaired Judgment and Insight 

Poor judgment, lack of insight into one's cognitive deficits, and impaired awareness of the consequences of alcohol misuse. 

  1. Changes in Behavior and Personality 

Mood swings, irritability, apathy, social withdrawal, and disinhibition may occur. 

  1. Motor Impairments 

Alcohol-induced ‘dementia’ can also affect motor skills and coordination, leading to difficulties with balance, walking, and fine motor tasks. 

What are the signs and symptoms of alcohol-induced ‘dementia’? 


Alcohol-induced ‘dementia’ or alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) can present with a range of signs and symptoms, which can vary in severity depending on factors such as the amount and the duration of alcohol consumption, how susceptible someone is to alcohol, and the presence of other health conditions.  

Here are some common signs and symptoms of alcohol-induced ‘dementia’: 

  • Memory Loss  

Difficulty in recalling recent events, conversations, or learned information. 

  • Impaired Executive Function

Difficulty with planning, organising, problem-solving, and decision-making. 

  • Confusion 

Feeling disoriented, having trouble understanding or processing information, and experiencing cognitive fog. 

  • Language Problems 

Difficulty finding words, forming sentences, or understanding spoken or written language. 

  • Impaired Judgment 

Making poor decisions, engaging in risky behaviors, or having difficulty recognising consequences of actions. 

  • Personality Changes  

Changes in behavior, mood swings, irritability, or apathy. 

  • Impaired Motor Skills 

Difficulty with coordination, balance, and fine motor movements. 

  • Difficulty with Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) 

Struggling with tasks such as bathing, dressing, cooking, or managing finances. 

  • Social Withdrawal 

Avoiding social interactions or neglecting previously enjoyed activities. 

  • Psychiatric Symptoms 

Symptoms such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, or hallucinations may occur. 

  • Worsening Cognitive Decline 

Over time, symptoms may worsen, leading to severe cognitive impairment resembling other forms of dementia like Alzheimer's disease. 

It's essential to note that alcohol-induced ‘dementia’ can coexist with other forms of dementia or neurological conditions, making diagnosis and management complex.  

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it's crucial to seek medical advice and support from healthcare professionals experienced in diagnosing and treating alcohol-related brain damage.  

Early intervention and cessation of alcohol use can help slow down or even reverse some of the cognitive impairments associated with alcohol-induced ‘dementia’. 

What causes alcohol induced ‘dementia’? 


The main cause of alcohol induced ‘dementia’ is the sustained consumption of large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time.  

The resulting damage can be caused by a combination of factors including vitamin B1 deficiency (thiamine), head injury and or blood vessel damage and the toxic effects of alcohol on nerve cells.  

The three main types of alcohol related brain damage are Wernicke’s encephalopathy, Korsakoff’s syndrome and alcoholic dementia. Both Wernicke’s and Korsakoff’s can occur singularly or in combination, and in this instance is referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. 

Wernicke’s encephalopathy frequently has a sudden onset and is identified by balance and movement problems, abnormal eye movements, loss of coordination, confusion and disorientation.  

In comparison, Korsakoff’s syndrome is more gradual, and the symptoms include issues with attention and concentration, memory gaps which are usually filled inaccurately (confabulation) and difficulties learning new information. 

It more commonly occurs in people in their 40s and 50s and comprises about 10% of the cases of young onset dementia diagnosed. Middle aged women are at greater risk of the negative effects of alcohol due to a difference in hormone levels, body fat composition and height to weight ratios. 

While there are no specific life expectancy projections for people living with alcohol-related dementia in general, a study shows that the life expectancy for someone with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is eight years for 50% of people who have this form of alcohol-related brain damage. 

How is alcohol induced dementia diagnosed? 


If you’re concerned that you might be experiencing alcohol-related dementia, book yourself a doctor’s appointment.  

Your doctor can then conduct a full evaluation of your symptoms, including a physical exam. They may also instruct you to complete a questionnaire about these symptoms, especially those relating to your memory and cognitive abilities. 

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor might also refer you to have a brain scan to rule out other concerns, like a stroke or tumor, or brain bleeding caused by physical trauma.  

All of the information gathered will also help them rule out other types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia. It's essential to differentiate alcohol-induced ‘dementia’ from these other forms of dementia, as treatment and management approaches may differ.   

Treatment of alcohol-induced dementia


The treatment of alcohol-induced dementia focuses on addressing underlying alcohol misuse, managing cognitive symptoms, and providing supportive care. Immediately stopping drinking can be extremely dangerous if someone has been drinking heavily over a long period of time so it’s crucial any activity around reducing alcohol consumption is managed carefully, under the guidance of a healthcare professional.  

Additional treatment aside from alcohol cessation or reduction interventions include pharmacotherapy for cognitive symptoms or coexisting conditions, nutritional support, rehabilitation therapies, and psychosocial interventions.  

Prevention of alcohol-induced dementia involves promoting healthy alcohol consumption patterns, raising awareness of the risks associated with heavy drinking, and providing support and resources for individuals struggling with alcohol use disorders.  

Early intervention and treatment of alcohol misuse can help prevent or mitigate the development of alcohol-induced ‘dementia’ and improve overall brain health and cognitive function. 

How can alcohol damage the brain? 


The damage alcohol can cause to the brain can present in a variety of different ways including:  

  • Neurotoxic Effects 

Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to neuronal damage, particularly in regions of the brain involved in memory, learning, and executive function, such as the hippocampus, frontal lobes, and cerebellum. 

  • Neurochemical Imbalances 

To explain this in more detail, alcohol misuse disrupts neurotransmitter systems, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, dopamine, and serotonin, which play crucial roles in cognitive function and mood regulation. 

  • Vascular Changes 

Alcohol misuse can contribute to vascular damage and cerebrovascular disease, increasing the risk of strokes and vascular dementia. 

  • Nutritional Deficiencies 

Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to malnutrition and deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, such as thiamine (vitamin B1), folate, and vitamin B12, which are important for brain health. 

How can alcohol related brain damage be prevented? 

Preventing alcohol-induced dementia involves making lifestyle changes to reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption and adopting healthy habits to support brain health. Here are some strategies: 

  • Limit Alcohol Consumption 

The most effective way to prevent alcohol-induced dementia is to limit alcohol consumption. To reinforce the point previously made, this must be done slowly and under the guidance of a medical professional. The moderate drinking guidelines recommend no more than one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. 

  • Avoid Binge Drinking 

Binge drinking, defined as consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period, can significantly increase the risk of alcohol-related brain damage. Avoid binge drinking and pace alcohol consumption over time. 

  • Stay Hydrated 

Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, as alcohol can lead to dehydration, which can affect brain function. 

  • Exercise Regularly 

Regular physical activity has been shown to support cognitive function and reduce the risk of dementia. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, along with strength training exercises. 

  • Get Sufficient Sleep 

Prioritise getting enough quality sleep each night, as sleep plays a vital role in cognitive function and brain health. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night for most adults. 

  • Seek Treatment for Alcohol Abuse  

If you or someone you know struggles with alcohol abuse or addiction, seek professional help and support to address the underlying issues and develop a plan for recovery. Treatment may involve therapy, support groups, medication, or rehabilitation programs. 

  • Monitor Overall Health 

Attend regular medical check-ups and monitor your overall health, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar levels. Manage any chronic health conditions effectively to reduce the risk of vascular damage and cognitive impairment. 

By adopting these preventive measures and making healthy lifestyle choices, you can reduce the risk of alcohol-induced dementia and support long-term brain health. 

Where to get help with alcohol addiction  


If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction to alcohol, regardless of physical symptoms, know that you are not alone and there is an abundance of help and advice available.  

Your GP can signpost you to local services in your area, or alternatively you can reach out to any of the following organisations for judgement-free help and support:  

Alcohol Change UK 

We Are With You  

UK Addiction Treatment Centres – How To Support An Alcoholic 

Drink Aware  

Turning Point  

NHS Services 

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