Last Updated: April 12, 2024

Inside this Article:

Introduction

Along with age, gender, ethnicity, and certain medical conditions, some lifestyle factors and choices have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

Some of these lifestyle factors include smoking, lack of physical activity, failure to manage health conditions, and yes – excessive alcohol consumption. 

Learn how drinking too much alcohol can impact the brain and increase the risk of developing dementia. Plus, learn how you can reduce and even reverse alcohol-related dementia with the proper steps.

Does Alcohol Cause Dementia?

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, research shows that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol does increase the risk of developing dementia. 

However, there is not a conclusive link between drinking alcohol in moderation and developing dementia.

You may hear people say that drinking alcohol in moderation offers protection against dementia. These claims have not been proven. It is not recommended to drink alcohol in an effort to prevent dementia.

What is Alcohol-Related Dementia?

confused elderly man with woman helping him; dementia and alzheimer's

Alcohol-related dementia – formerly known as alcoholic dementia describes a severe form of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) caused by long-term, excessive alcohol consumption. Seniors are especially affected by the damaging effects alcohol can have on the body, including alcohol-related dementia.

In general, alcohol-related dementia occurs as a result of alcoholism over a long period of time, but it can also occur from frequent episodes of heavy drinking or binge drinking over time.

Excessive alcohol consumption can directly damage brain cells, neurotransmitters, and structures related to memory, cognition, and brain function.

Over time, these effects can cause a variety of cognitive impairments, such as:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving
  • Lowered attention span
  • Difficulty with language and communication
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Apathy

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

inspecting the parts of the brain; dementia care for seniors

Research from the National Institute of Health (NIH) shows that excessive consumption of alcohol over long periods of time can cause structural and functional brain damage. 

Alcohol is linked to a reduction in the volume of the brain’s white matter, which works to transmit signals between different regions of the brain. Long-term, excessive alcohol use may also shrink parts of the brain involved with memory. 

These types of brain damage can cause a sharper decline in cognition for seniors. They can also lead to difficulties with memory, spatial awareness, and executive functioning skills. 

Changes such as these can make everyday tasks like cooking and paying bills more difficult. They can also result in changes in mood, personality, and social skills.

Long-term drinking can also lead to a lack of thiamine (Vitamin B1) in the body. This deficiency can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, the most severe form of ARBD. With this condition, the brain tissue deteriorates and causes confusion, disorientation, blurred vision, balance difficulties, and other side effects. People with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can also go on to experience psychosis, with symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, and apathy.

Wernicke-Korsakoff should be treated as a medical emergency and, if caught early, can be treated with large amounts of thiamine. 

Age of Onset of Alcohol-Related Dementia

The onset of alcohol-related dementia varies but is often seen around the ages of 40-50 years old. This is younger than the usual onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, which is about 65 years old, according to the CDC.

About 1 in 10 people have some form of ARBD, and for those with young-onset dementia who are younger than 65, ARBD affects 1 in 8 people.

How Much Alcohol Can Cause Dementia?

alcoholic beverages; alcohol-related dementia

The amount of alcohol needed to cause alcohol-related dementia can vary. Some sources say drinking 35 alcoholic beverages a week for 5 years for men, and 28 alcoholic beverages a week for 5 years for women, presents a sufficient risk for developing alcohol-related dementia. 

In the United States, the definition of a standard drink is about 14 grams (0.6 fluid ounces) of pure alcohol, which is found in:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer (about 5% alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (about 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40% alcohol)

Keep in mind that while standard drink amounts are helpful, they may not reflect usual serving sizes. And, there is variability in the amount of alcohol across some varieties of beverages.

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Brain Damage?

older man pouring bottle of scotch; alcohol related dementia in seniors

The symptoms of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) can vary, but can be categorized into two general categories: cognitive problems and physical problems. Many of these symptoms can be lessened or even reversed with proper treatment.

Cognitive and memory-related symptoms of ARBD include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty with everyday tasks
  • Difficulty processing new information
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Poor judgment
  • Language challenges
  • Erratic behavior
  • Concentration difficulties

Physical symptoms of ARBD include:

  • Liver, stomach, and pancreas damage
  • Tingling, numbness, or burning sensation in the limbs
  • Clumsy movements
  • Poor muscle and temperature control
  • Sleep difficulties

How to Reverse Alcohol-Related Dementia

senior man meeting with doctor; florida dementia care

The first step in treating and reversing alcohol-related dementia is to refrain from consuming any alcohol. This process is often easier said than done, especially for people suffering from alcoholism. However, it is completely necessary if you want to reverse alcohol-related dementia. 

Medical supervision and support are usually necessary for people with alcoholism to quit drinking. If you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing alcohol-related dementia, reach out to your doctor as soon as possible. The sooner you treat the condition, the better your chances of recovery.

Can You Reverse Alcohol-Related Dementia Symptoms?

It is possible to reverse the effects of alcohol-related dementia, at least in part. Research shows that by stopping drinking, the brain is able to partially recover white matter, leading to improved cognitive and motor function. 

How to Stop Drinking Alcohol

For those who have consumed excessive amounts of alcohol long-term, stopping drinking can lead to withdrawal symptoms like headaches, nausea, disorientation, or agitation. Thus, it is important to work with a medical professional to effectively begin quitting alcohol. They can guide you through the process and provide you with medications to combat withdrawal symptoms.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a confidential, free national hotline that can help you find local treatment, support groups, and community organizations.

Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are also very effective in helping people recover from alcoholism. 

Guidelines for Low-Risk Drinking

older friends drinking wine; assisted living in florida

Some people do not suffer from alcoholism but still want to cut back on their alcohol consumption to lower their risk of developing alcohol-related dementia. To do so, they should aim for moderate alcohol consumption, or less if possible.

Moderate Alcohol Consumption

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate alcohol consumption as up to 1 drink a day for women, and up to 2 drinks a day for men.

These guidelines were developed to help people improve and maintain their overall health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

How to Reduce the Risk of Dementia

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According to Alzheimer’s.gov, there are no approaches proven to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s.  However, there are many steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

While you cannot control your age, genetic makeup, ethnicity, or gender – some of the main risk factors for dementia – you do have control over your lifestyle choices.

Some of the lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your risk of dementia are as follows:

  • Limit alcohol and tobacco use
  • Prevent falls and head injuries
  • Get enough sleep
  • Maintain mental and physical health through regular health screenings and check-ins with your healthcare provider
  • Stay physically active
  • Follow a nutritious diet
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep high blood pressure under control
  • Manage blood sugar
  • Exercise your brain by talking, reading, playing strategy games, doing puzzles, learning languages, and more
  • Stay socially connected
  • Protect yourself from hearing loss

While these lifestyle choices are not proven to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s completely, they are shown to help reduce your risk of developing these conditions. 

Not only that, but following these healthy habits helps lower your chances of developing other health conditions and diseases common in seniors, as well, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and others.

Summary

Alcohol-related dementia is a serious condition with significant side effects. However, it does not have to be permanent. With the right treatment, seniors can stop and even reverse their symptoms and return to living a normal, healthy life.

Does Your Loved One Have Alcohol-Related Dementia?

elderly parents and daughter smiling; memory care in florida

Many people are unaware that when a senior starts experiencing dementia-related symptoms like memory loss, they may not actually have dementia in the traditional sense.

Instead, their dementia patterns may be caused by lifestyle choices, including long-term abuse of alcohol. 

That is why it is important to work with professionals when navigating dementia and Alzheimer’s. Assessments by medical professionals can help determine the cause of a senior’s dementia symptoms as well as the proper treatment plan.

But, in these situations, knowing how to proceed is not always common sense. That is why we recommend a trusted senior advisor like the experts at Florida Senior Consulting.

Every staff member of Florida Senior Consulting is a Certified Dementia Practitioner. With our years of experience, we can help you figure out the next best step when it comes to the health and safety of your senior family members.

Whether it be finding Florida memory care, assisted living, trusted medical specialists, and more, Florida Senior Consulting will go above and beyond to help you every step of the way.

To discuss the next best step for your senior relative, call us today at (800) 969-7176 or visit FloridaSeniorConsulting.com.

Senior living on your terms. The choice should be yours.

Contact Florida Senior Consulting

(800) 969-7176