Excessive alcohol consumption has many detrimental effects on the body, including possible damage to the brain. This brain damage can lead to symptoms of dementia, known as alcohol-related dementia (ARD).

Dementia is a decline in cognitive function severe enough that it interferes with daily life. It is not a specific disease, but rather a common set of symptoms involving declining memory and thinking skills. There are many causes of dementia, but all result in damage to brain cells. This damage can lead to structural changes in the brain and make communication between brain cells more difficult.

Alcohol-Related Dementia

Alcohol-related dementia (ARD) is a broad term used by medical professionals to describe dementia-like symptoms associated with alcohol use.

Essentially, ARD encompasses several conditions including alcoholic dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. These conditions may have non-specific symptoms, and other factors may contribute to their development, so they are often difficult to diagnose. In general, these conditions are associated with heavy or chronic alcohol consumption.

Chronic alcohol use damages the brain in several ways, including:

  • Direct damage to brain cells, specifically in the frontal lobe
  • Stress to the body caused by frequent intoxication and withdrawal
  • Potential head injury due to alcohol-related falls
  • Changes to the vascular system in the brain
  • Increased risk of hemorrhage

There are also indirect effects of alcohol that lead to brain damage. Chronic alcohol consumption leads to a deficiency in thiamine or vitamin B1. Thiamine is an essential vitamin that helps convert food into energy that the body can use. When thiamine levels are too low, brain cells cannot generate enough energy to work properly.

Thiamine deficiency can trigger Wernicke-Kosakoff syndrome, which is two distinct conditions. Wernicke encephalopathy is the brain’s acute reaction to dangerously low thiamine levels. It is a medical emergency and must be treated immediately to prevent coma and death.

Kosakoff syndrome results from long-term thiamine deficiency and can lead to permanent memory damage. Each condition can occur independently, but Kosakoff syndrome often occurs after Wernicke encephalopathy.

Alcohol-Related Dementia Side Effects

Signs of ARD and Wernicke encephalopathy usually occur abruptly, and include:

  • Extreme confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Disorientation
  • Inability to move eyes
  • Muscle jerks
  • Unsteadiness

If Wernicke encephalopathy is suspected, seek medical attention immediately. If left untreated, it may result in coma or death.

Symptoms of Kosakoff syndrome are gradual and include:

  • Difficulty learning new information
  • Long-term gaps in memory
  • Difficulty remembering recent events

Signs of alcoholic dementia are also gradual, more varied, and may include:

  • Difficulty with decision making, planning, organization or judgment
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Inability to maintain attention
  • Slowed reasoning

Treatment for Alcohol-Related Dementia

Alcohol-related dementia and Wernicke encephalopathy may be treated with thiamine given as an infusion or injection. Improvement may take days to months. Usually, the client will remain in the hospital until these symptoms resolve. When the acute symptoms have been managed, the focus shifts to long-term management.

Long-term treatment for ARD should include participation in an alcohol treatment program. It’s essential to stop using alcohol, and if the signs of ARD are caught early, a person has a high likelihood of living a fulfilling life, as long as they eliminate alcohol.

If someone’s ARD has progressed far, it can be difficult to adjust to a life without alcohol, but it is possible. Abstinence is the best treatment. It’s also important to have a healthy, balanced diet. Thiamine supplementation may be required.

Key Points: Alcohol and Dementia

Important points to remember about alcohol and dementia include:

  • Alcohol-related dementia (ARD) is a broad term describing dementia-like effects caused by alcohol use
  • ARD includes alcoholic dementia and Wernicke-Kosakoff syndrome
  • Alcohol damages the brain both directly and indirectly
  • Dementia-like symptoms due to alcohol can be both acute and chronic
  • Short-term (acute) symptoms of ARD may be a sign of a medical emergency. These include extreme confusion, vomiting, disorientation and muscle spasms
  • Long-term effects of ARD may vary but may include confusion, difficulty learning or processing information or memory loss
  • Short-term treatment for ARD involves thiamine and vitamin supplements
  • Alcohol abstinence and a healthy diet are key components to long-term treatment

If you are having difficulties with alcohol, reach out today. Treatment is available and is the most important strategy to prevent or reverse symptoms of ARD. If you need help now for alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village offers high-quality treatment at centers across the country. Reach out today to learn more.


  1. Alzheimer’s Association. “What is dementia?” (n.d.). Accessed March 29, 2019.
  2. Sachdeva, Ankur, et al. “Alcohol-Related Dementia and Neurocognitive Impairment: A Review Study.” Published February 7, 2016. Accessed March 29, 2019.
  3. Ridley, Nicole; Draper, Brian. “Alcohol-related dementia: an update of the evidence.” Published on January 25, 2013. Accessed March 29, 2019.
  4. Alzheimer’s Association. “Korsakoff Syndrome.” (n.d.). Accessed March 29, 2019.
  5. Alzheimer’s Society. “Korsakoff Syndrome.” (n.d.). Accessed March 29, 2019.
  6. Alzheimer’s Society. “Symptoms of Alcoholic Dementia.” (n.d.) Accessed March 29, 2019.
  7. Alzheimer’s Association. “Treatment and support for Alcohol-related brain damage.” (n.d.). Accessed March 29, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.