Heavy drinking can be harmful to your mental and physical health. Over time, alcohol abuse can increase your risk of certain types of cancers, liver disease, and cognitive issues.
Alcohol has a direct impact on the health of brain cells, and too much alcohol leads to poor judgment, difficulty making sound decisions, and impulsive behaviors. It can also cause problems with memory, learning, and other cognitive skills in the form of a condition called alcohol-related dementia (ARD). Alcohol-related dementia is commonly referred to as “alcoholic dementia.”
What is Alcohol-Related Dementia (ARD)?
Alcoholic-related dementia is a type of cognitive condition that develops after long periods of excessive drinking. It is characterized by dementia-like symptoms and problems with cognition. The term “alcoholic-related dementia” may be used interchangeably with “alcohol-induced major neurocognitive disorder” or “alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD).”
The condition forms as a result of the structural and functional brain damage that occurs as a result of long-term alcohol abuse. Excessive drinking can lead to changes in memory, spatial awareness, and executive functioning which ultimately become so severe that it becomes difficult to function in daily life. When symptoms begin affecting one’s ability to perform simple tasks, recall memories, or care for themselves, they may receive a diagnosis of ARD.
Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Dementia
Alcoholic dementia is a significant consequence of chronic alcohol abuse, leading to cognitive impairments and impacting various aspects of an individual’s life. Alcohol-related dementia has many of the same symptoms as senile dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Common symptoms of alcoholic dementia are:
- Memory loss
- Impaired judgment and decision-making abilities
- Difficulty with problem-solving and planning
- Confusion and disorientation
- Difficulty concentrating and paying attention
- Language and speech problems
- Mood swings and personality changes
- Impaired coordination and motor skills
- Balance problems and unsteady gait
- Difficulty with daily tasks and activities
- Reduced problem-solving abilities
- Impaired abstract thinking
- Poor insight into one’s own condition
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Worsening of cognitive functioning over time
The symptoms of alcoholic dementia can vary in severity and may overlap with other forms of dementia.
Alcoholic Dementia vs. Wet Brain
ARD is often confused with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), also known as wet brain. Wet brain is a syndrome caused by thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency as a result of heavy, prolonged alcohol abuse.
While both conditions share some similar symptoms, ARD and WKS have two different causes. WKS is caused by thiamine deficiency while ARD is caused by structural and functional brain damage. However, both conditions are unique in the fact that they are unique to people who suffer from alcohol use disorders.
How Do You Reach a Diagnosis of Alcohol-Related Dementia?
People may get diagnosed with alcoholic dementia during a routine physical exam or emergency medical visit. During a routine exam, the physician may pick up on the physical and emotional symptoms of the condition and conduct a further assessment. Depending on the symptoms, individuals may also undergo blood testing and brain scans to rule out other concerns or causes. This information will help the physician reach a proper diagnosis.
People may also get diagnosed after an accident or urgent care visit. Poor coordination and judgment can increase the risk of physical injury, potentially landing people in the ER. Regardless of the cause, if a medical professional suspects some type of cognitive issue, they may refer the patient to their primary care provider or a specialist.
Treatment for Alcohol-Related Dementia
First and foremost, treatment involves quitting drinking. People who have been drinking for many years will need to detox under medical supervision and attend an alcohol addiction treatment program so they can learn the skills they need to stay sober. In addition to rehab, individuals are encouraged to make healthy lifestyle changes in the form of diet, exercise, and sleep, and attend support group meetings.
For many people, symptoms stop progressing and even improve after they have stopped drinking for a while, but symptoms can reappear and progress if they resume drinking again.
In some cases, Alzheimer’s disease medications like rivastigmine or memantine may be used to help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Unfortunately, there is no cure, and many people live with the disease for the rest of their lives.
Early Treatment is the Key to Prevention
Drinking in moderation, or not drinking at all, is the best way to prevent alcohol-related dementia and other long-term effects of alcoholism. However, another way to prevent the development of the condition is to seek treatment as soon as you suspect you have a drinking problem.
The sooner you stop drinking and get treatment, the better. An alcohol detox center can help you detox safely, then rehab can treat the root causes of your drinking and help you navigate recovery.
Even if you’re already experiencing cognitive symptoms as a result of your drinking, seeking treatment to quit drinking can stop your symptoms from progressing and allow them to improve.
Find an Alcohol Rehab Center Near You
At New Jersey Addiction Interventions, we partner with some of the most trusted alcohol detox and rehab centers in the U.S., connecting individuals to the life-changing alcoholism treatment they deserve. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism and are ready to begin your recovery, please contact us today.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol’s Effects on Health, Retrieved June 2023 from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/alcohol-and-brain-overview
- National Library of Medicine: Alcohol use and dementia, Retrieved June 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6320619/
- National Library of Medicine: Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, Retrieved June 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430729/
Medically Reviewed: June 30, 2023
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.