An image of a middle-aged woman with short grey hair appearing worried, thinking about the early signs of alcohol-related dementia

Excessive alcohol consumption can be extremely harmful, especially over a long period of time. Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill health and disability among 15-49-year-olds in the UK and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages. It is also linked to numerous medical conditions, including different kinds of cancer, high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, and depression.

One risk that many people are unaware of is that of alcohol-related dementia. This can develop from heavy drinking, usually over a period of years. Like other forms of dementia, it leads to cognitive and mental decline. The sufferer might experience memory loss and difficulty thinking. This could cause them to struggle with tasks such as managing finances or even everyday activities like cooking or making a cup of tea.

Unlike Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, alcohol-related dementia is not certain to get worse over time. With proper treatment and abstinence from alcohol, the progress of the condition can be slowed, halted or reversed. It is, therefore, vital to spot symptoms of alcohol-related dementia as early as possible.


Understanding Alcohol-Related Dementia

Dementia is not a specific condition but a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interfere with everyday activities. Alcohol-related dementia, as the name suggests, is caused by long-term alcohol abuse. It can be considered a type of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD).

Alcohol can damage the brain in a number of different ways. Alcohol is toxic to nerve cells, and excessive drinking over a long period can cause brain cells to die and brain tissue to shrink. This can limit the brain’s ability to carry out all the tasks it needs to. Alcohol also damages blood vessels in a person’s brain and can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of experiencing a stroke.

A specific disorder linked to alcohol-related dementia is known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is a degenerative disorder caused by the lack of thiamine (vitamin B1). A number of things can lead to B1 deficiency, including eating disorders, serious dietary deficiencies and chemotherapy. The most common cause, however, is alcoholism and long-term alcohol abuse.


Early Signs of Alcohol-Related Dementia

For alcohol dementia, early detection is a must in order to halt and potentially reverse the symptoms, preserving the quality of life.

Symptoms can vary from one case to the next, but they may include:

  • Finding it difficult to stay focused on tasks.
  • Difficulty with solving problems, planning ahead and organisation.
  • Difficulty setting goals, making judgements and making decisions.
  • Lack of motivation to do tasks or activities – even essential ones like eating or drinking.
  • Difficulty controlling their emotions – they may become irritable or have outbursts.
  • Lack of understanding of how other people are thinking or feeling – their behaviour may appear insensitive or uncaring from an outside perspective.
  • Out-of-character forgetfulness and memory problems.
  • Issues with balance and coordination.

With a long-term heavy drinker, you might be used to seeing similar issues when they are intoxicated, but these symptoms might also start to show when they are not drinking or drunk. They will also develop over time, so at first, the early signs of alcohol-related dementia may be subtle.


Risk Factors for Alcohol-Related Dementia

The most obvious risk factor is prolonged heavy drinking, and the risks of developing alcohol-related dementia will increase with the heaviness and duration of drinking. Age and sex can also play a role. Alcohol-related dementia, alcohol-related brain damage and the related Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome most commonly affect men over the age of 45 with a long history of alcohol abuse, although men and women of any age can be affected.


Impact of Alcohol-Related Dementia

Alcohol-related dementia and alcohol brain damage symptoms can affect the ability to carry out everyday tasks.

Alcohol-related dementia can have a big impact on your ability to work. It can put a serious strain on personal relationships and can eventually affect every aspect of your life. People with alcohol-related dementia may struggle to live a normal or independent life. This condition can be treated, however, so it is important to seek help as soon as possible.


When and How to Seek Help

It is best to seek professional help as soon as possible as the effects of alcohol-related dementia can often be halted and, in some cases, reversed – although not always to the point where they no longer have any effect. Your GP is the usual starting point, as they will be able to signpost or refer you to relevant specialists.

Alcohol-related dementia can be difficult to diagnose, especially if the doctor is not made fully aware of the patient’s history of drinking. Symptoms may be mistaken for something else, and doctors will also need to make sure that these symptoms don’t indicate another type of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.

Before any treatment can begin, the patient must stop drinking entirely. This can be very challenging, especially as they are likely to have developed an alcohol dependency. A specialist recovery and rehabilitation service like Step One Recovery can help you to get through the difficult and potentially dangerous stage of detoxification, as well as address the psychological and habitual aspects of alcohol addiction.


Preventing Alcohol-Related Dementia

The most important thing you can do to prevent the onset of alcohol-related dementia is to limit your alcohol intake or stop drinking entirely. Adopting a healthier overall lifestyle can also help. The thiamine or B1 deficiency associated with heavy drinking can be partially addressed by eating B1-rich foods including eggs, whole grain products, beef, pork, peas and beans. Alcohol blocks the absorption of this vitamin however, so you are likely to be fighting a losing battle if you also continue to drink.

Alcohol-related dementia can have a serious impact on quality of life, but it can be arrested and successfully treated. It is therefore very important to look for the early warning signs of alcohol-related dementia and seek help if you have any worries. The most important thing you can do, however, is to limit your drinking so you do not develop this serious condition in the first place.


Reach Out for Support Today

If you’re worried about your drinking habits or struggling with controlling your alcohol consumption, please do get in touch with our team today. Contact us directly on 0330 107 2950. Alternatively, you can also fill out one of our enquiry forms, and a member of our team will reach out a time that suits you.