What is alcohol related dementia?
Alcohol related dementia, as the name suggests, is a form of dementia related to the excessive drinking of alcohol. This affects memory, learning and other mental functions. Korsakoff’s syndrome and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are particular forms of alcohol related brain injury which may be related to alcohol related dementia.
What is the cause?
It is currently unclear as to whether alcohol has a direct toxic effect on the brain cells, or whether the damage is due to lack of thiamine, vitamin B1.Nutritional problems, which often accompany consistent or episodic heavy use of alcohol, are thought to be contributing factors. Key parts of the brain may suffer damage through vitamin deficiencies, particularly marked levels of thiamine deficiency and the direct effect that alcohol has on the absorption and use of thiamine.
What are the symptoms?
This can vary from person to person, but generally symptoms will include:
- Impaired ability to learn things
- Personality changes
- Problems with memory
- Difficulty with clear and logical thinking on tasks which require planning, organising, common sense judgement and social skills
- Problems with balance
- Decreased initiative and spontaneity.
Generally skills learned earlier in life and old habits such as language and gestures tend to be relatively unaffected.
Who gets alcohol related dementia?
Anyone who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol over a period of years may develop these conditions, but most do not. It is not known why some very heavy drinkers develop dementia or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome while others do not. Diet and other lifestyle factors may play a role.
These conditions most commonly affect men over the age of 45 with a long history of alcohol abuse, though men and women of any age can be affected. The risk clearly increases for anyone who drinks high levels of alcohol on a regular basis for a long time.
The National Health & Medical Research Council of Australia recommends that to reduce the risk of all health problems related to alcohol, adults should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day. This limit applies to both men and women.
Is there treatment available?
At an early stage of the disease, problems may be reduced or reversed if the person abstains from alcohol, improves their diet and replace vitamins especially thiamine and vitamin B1. Thiamine is important to limit some of the toxic effects of alcohol, and is an important supplement for heavy drinkers.
Community support is available for the person with dementia, their family and carers. This support can make a positive difference to managing dementia.
Many people who develop alcohol related dementia are young, and this can mean that they and their family and carers will need extra consideration. It may be helpful to talk to a counsellor at Dementia Australia. Contact the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.
Al-Anon is a self-help group that provides support to people affected by someone else’s drinking. Alcoholics Anonymous is a self-help group for people who have problems with alcohol. Their contact number in each State or Territory can be found in the phone book, or by contacting the National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500.