Alcohol use can lead to lasting changes in how your brain functions. There are many stages of alcoholic dementia, each with their own symptoms.

Heavy alcohol users can develop alcohol-related dementia, a condition where alcohol use causes dementia. Dementia is a progressive memory loss that can range from mild, with minor effects on your ability to recall memory, to severe, affecting your ability to perform tasks like eating and dressing yourself.

What Is Alcoholic Dementia?

Alcohol-related dementia is a broad term that refers to brain damage caused by alcohol. This brain damage can be directly on brain cells, or damage that alcohol causes indirectly by affecting the absorption of vitamins that the brain needs.

What Causes Alcoholic Dementia?

Alcohol-related dementia ultimately describes any dementia-type illness that is caused by alcohol use. Alcohol can have a toxic effect on the brain, affecting normal function. Alcohol can also affect how vitamin B1, or thiamine, is absorbed. Thiamine is essential for brain health and a thiamine deficiency can lead to permanent brain damage.

Is Alcoholic Dementia Reversible?

Unlike many forms of dementia, alcohol-related dementia may be reversible depending on the circumstances. Only a doctor can determine if a specific case is reversible. Reversing alcohol-related dementia involves stopping alcohol use so that healing can occur.

Alcoholic Dementia Life Expectancy

Alcohol-related dementia is a broad term and can describe multiple conditions related to alcohol use that affects the brain. In most cases, determining the life expectancy of someone with alcohol-related dementia is also complicated by a history of heavy alcohol use, causing other alcohol-related problems that also shorten life expectancy.

While there are no specific life expectancy projections for 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.

Alcoholic Dementia Symptoms

Symptoms of alcohol-related dementia are different for each person and depend on the type of alcohol-related dementia. These symptoms may include:

  • Memory loss
  • Problems learning new things
  • Personality changes
  • Decreased attentiveness
  • Impaired judgment
  • Impaired social skills

The early stages of any form of dementia tend to be subtle and difficult to notice. People are generally able to live independently during the early stages of dementia, but subtle memory problems, such as losing items frequently, may occur. People with early-stage dementia may also find it more difficult to make complex decisions and express themselves. They also may undergo personality and mood changes.

During the middle stages of alcohol-related dementia, symptoms become more severe. People in this stage have more severe memory loss and find daily tasks to be more difficult. People may start to forget family members and close friends, and may find it harder to communicate. They may also start to hear, see or believe things that are not true.

During the later stages of dementia, symptoms are quite severe. People in this stage  need help with tasks like eating and bathing. They may believe that they are at an earlier stage in their life. Behaviors can be unpredictable and uninhibited, and communication is difficult and could become impossible.

Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a common form of alcohol-related dementia, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1, and occurs in two parts. The first part is called Wernicke’s encephalopathy and is reversible. It’s characterized by eye movement problems, discoordination and confusion. If Wernicke’s encephalopathy is not reversed, it leads to a more permanent condition called Korsakoff syndrome.

Korsakoff Syndrome Symptoms

Korsakoff syndrome causes memory loss that can be a form of alcohol-related dementia. Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:

  • Inability to make new memories
  • Gaps in long-term memories
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not there
  • Making up memories to fill in memory gaps

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Life Expectancy

The life expectancy of someone with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome tends to be shorter than the average individual. This may be due to the condition itself, but it is also influenced by the fact that most people who develop this condition have used alcohol heavily, creating additional health problems. Studies show that about 50% of people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome only live eight years after reaching this stage.

Alcohol and Alzheimer’s

There is some debate about whether alcohol use increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease at all, or whether it increases the chance that it will occur at an earlier age than it usually would. While this matter has not been fully settled, most experts agree that heavy drinkers have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Should Someone with Alzheimer’s or Dementia Drink Alcohol?

While there is still some debate on whether alcohol can cause Alzheimer’s disease, there is a clear consensus that those who already have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia should not drink alcohol. Alcohol causes cognitive impairment that can greatly increase the risk of injury with these conditions. Someone who is drinking may also forget how much alcohol they have consumed, increasing the risk of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol could also speed disease progression.

Alcoholic Dementia Treatment

The one clear way to prevent or treat alcohol-related dementia is to stop drinking as soon as possible. By removing the causative factor, the progression of  alcohol-related dementia can be stopped. If the specific case of dementia is reversible, stopping alcohol use will be necessary for recovery to occur.

If alcohol-related dementia is due to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, thiamine may be given to help reduce the condition’s effects or completely reverse it in its early stages. In its later stages, taking thiamine may be less effective but could help prevent further progression.

Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

It can be difficult to stop using alcohol, even if it’s causing alcohol-related dementia signs to occur. Anyone with an alcohol use disorder should seek professional medical help to prevent further complications while working toward addiction recovery.

Alcohol addiction treatment options include outpatient and inpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment involves going to regular physical and mental health appointments to get treatment and learn how to overcome alcohol addiction while otherwise keeping any work and social obligations. Inpatient treatment requires more dedication and involves living in a rehab center to get intensive treatment that is more likely to have a lasting effect.

The Recovery Village offers high-quality inpatient and outpatient treatment options across the country. We invite you to contact us to learn how to get started on your journey to lasting recovery from the effects of alcohol addiction.

Erica Weiman
Editor – Erica Weiman
Erica Weiman graduated from Pace University in 2014 with a master's in Publishing and has been writing and editing ever since. Read more
Benjamin Caleb Williams
Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more
Sources

Alzheimer’s Society. “Alcohol-related ‘dementia’.” Accessed January 28, 2022.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects On The Brain.” Alcohol Alert, October 2004. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Sanvisens, A; Zuluaga, P; et al. “Long-Term Mortality of Patients with an Alcohol-Related Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.” Alcohol and Alcoholism, July 1, 2017. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Dementia Australia. “Alcohol related dementia.” 2020. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Alzheimer’s Society. “Early-stage signs and symptoms of dementia.” 2022. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Alzheimer’s Society. “The middle stage of dementia.” 2022. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Alzheimer’s Society. “The later stage of dementia.” 2022. Accessed January 28, 2022.

National Library of Medicine. “Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.” MedlinePlus, September 30, 2021. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Tyas, SL. “Alcohol Use and the Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease.” Alcohol Research & Health, 2002. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Christiansen, S. “What Caregivers Should Know About Alcohol use and Alzheimer’s Disease.” Alzheimer’s Universe. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.