November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. In America, almost 7 million people are living with this disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive disease that develops slowly but significantly impacts individuals and their families.
Research shows a relationship between alcohol and Alzheimer’s disease. Drinking in moderation may reduce the chance of developing Alzheimer’s. However, heavy drinking regularly can increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s by 300 percent!
The 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows over 219 million people ages 12 and older report drinking alcohol at some point. Over 16 million people in the same age group repacorted heavy drinking in the past month, indicating a critical need for alcohol addiction treatment services.
How do these alcohol statistics affect the future of Alzheimer’s disease? Learn more about the connection between alcohol and Alzheimer’s and other alcohol-related brain damage.
What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease?
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Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and irreversible brain disorder. It primarily affects cognitive functions like memory, thinking, and reasoning. It is the most common cause of dementia, a general term for a decline in cognitive ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.
Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative condition that involves the gradual degeneration and death of brain cells. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not fully understood, but genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors are believed to play a role in its development.
This disease typically progresses through different stages, with symptoms becoming more severe over time. Common symptoms include:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty with problem-solving and planning
- Language problems
- Impaired judgment
- Changes in mood and behavior
- Loss of initiative
- Social withdrawal
- Visual and spatial issues
- Hallucinations and delusions
Alzheimer’s disease progresses differently in each person, and the rate of decline can vary. Some individuals may experience all of these symptoms, while others may only exhibit a few.
As the disease advances, these symptoms become more pronounced and profoundly impact a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are treatments that can help manage some of the symptoms and improve the quality of life.
What is the Connection Between Alcohol and Dementia?
Alcohol and dementia are connected in several ways, but the relationship between the two is complex. The connection depends on several factors, including the amount and duration of alcohol consumption, individual susceptibility, and other lifestyle factors.
Alcohol Abuse and Dementia Risk
Chronic and heavy alcohol consumption over a long period is a well-established risk factor for certain types of dementia, particularly a form known as alcohol-related dementia. This condition is often seen in individuals with a history of alcohol use disorder (AUD), which can lead to brain damage and cognitive impairment.
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a type of alcohol-related brain damage. It results from thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, common in heavy drinkers. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can lead to severe memory problems and other cognitive impairments.
Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Some studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption, particularly red wine, may have certain cardiovascular benefits and may be associated with a reduced risk of some types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. However, the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and dementia is still a subject of ongoing research and debate.
People vary in their susceptibility to the effects of alcohol on the brain. Some individuals may develop alcohol-related cognitive impairments more readily than others, even with relatively low or moderate alcohol consumption.
Interaction with Other Risk Factors
Alcohol use often coexists with other lifestyle factors that can increase dementia risk, such as smoking, poor diet, and lack of physical activity. These factors can compound the risk associated with alcohol consumption.
In some cases, social engagement and a supportive environment in moderate drinking cultures may contribute to cognitive health in older adults. However, these social factors can be separate from the direct effects of alcohol.
The relationship between alcohol and dementia is not fully understood, and the effects of alcohol on the brain can vary widely among individuals. If you or someone you know is worried about alcohol consumption and its potential impact on cognitive health, it’s advisable to seek guidance from a healthcare professional.
For individuals with a history of heavy alcohol consumption or alcohol use disorder, addressing alcohol-related issues is crucial to reduce the risk of alcohol-related dementia and other health complications.
Can Alcohol Consumption Increase Dementia Risk?
Alcohol consumption, especially heavy and chronic drinking, can increase the risk of developing dementia. Alcohol-related dementia is a recognized condition; excessive alcohol consumption is a known risk factor for cognitive impairment and brain damage.
Over the past few years, there have been many studies on alcohol and Alzheimer’s. CNN reported in one study that 16.5% of men and 4% of women had alcohol use disorders.
Another study out of South Korea shows that reducing alcohol intake from heavy to moderate decreases the risk of dementia by 8%. Additionally, there was a 12% decrease in Alzheimer’s disease.
Although some people can easily reduce their alcohol consumption, people who drink heavily often struggle with alcohol addiction. In this case, an addiction treatment program may be necessary.
How Can Alcohol Damage the Brain?
There are a variety of ways that alcohol can damage the brain. This is even more so when a person drinks in excess over an extended period of time. The neurological effects of alcohol are complex and can cause short-term and long-term damage.
Alcohol is a neurotoxin, which has toxic effects on brain cells (neurons). When you consume alcohol, it can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters, chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with each other. This disruption can impair cognitive and motor functions.
Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to brain atrophy, which is the loss of brain tissue. This results in a smaller brain volume and can cause cognitive impairments. Areas of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making, and impulse control are particularly vulnerable.
Excessive alcohol consumption can trigger an inflammatory response in the brain. Inflammation can damage neurons and disrupt their functioning.
Long-term alcohol use can lead to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Thiamine is essential for normal brain function. Deficiency can result in Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which causes severe memory problems and confusion.
Alcohol can interfere with the production of new brain cells (neurogenesis), particularly in the hippocampus, a region involved in memory. This impairment can contribute to cognitive deficits.
Alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to poor quality and insufficient sleep. Sleep is crucial for cognitive function and memory consolidation, so sleep disruption can contribute to cognitive impairment.
Increased Risk of Brain Disorders
Chronic alcohol abuse is associated with a higher risk of developing neurological and psychiatric disorders, including alcohol-related dementia, depression disorder, and anxiety
Increased Risk of Head Injury
Alcohol impairs coordination and judgment, increasing the risk of accidents and head injuries. Traumatic brain injuries can cause long-term cognitive problems.
The severity of brain damage from alcohol consumption can vary depending on factors like the amount and duration of alcohol use, individual vulnerability, and genetic factors. The brain has some capacity for recovery, especially when alcohol use is discontinued.
What is Alcohol-Related Brain Damage?
Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is a term that encompasses a range of neurological and cognitive impairments resulting from chronic and heavy alcohol consumption. ARBD is a broad category that includes the following conditions and syndromes.
Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome is one of the most well-known and severe forms of ARBD. It is two related conditions that often occur together:
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy is an acute condition characterized by confusion, ataxia (problems with muscle coordination and control), and eye movement abnormalities. It is caused by a thiamine deficiency (vitamin B1), common in heavy drinkers.
- Korsakoff syndrome – This chronic condition often follows Wernicke’s encephalopathy. It leads to severe memory problems, confabulation (fabricating information to fill in gaps in memory), and difficulties in learning and retaining new information.
Chronic heavy alcohol use can lead to a specific type of dementia known as alcohol-induced dementia or alcohol-related dementia. Cognitive impairment, memory problems, and difficulties with problem-solving and reasoning characterize it. It may coexist with other cognitive and behavioral deficits.
Chronic alcohol abuse can damage the cerebellum, a region of the brain responsible for motor coordination and balance. This can lead to cerebellar ataxia, which results in unsteady gait, tremors, and difficulties with fine motor skills.
Long-term alcohol use can cause atrophy (shrinkage) of subcortical structures in the brain, leading to various cognitive and emotional disturbances.
ARBD is a result of the neurotoxic effects of alcohol, thiamine deficiency, and other factors associated with heavy drinking. It is often associated with long-term alcohol use disorder (AUD) and may develop gradually over time.
The damage can be irreversible, especially in advanced cases, but some cognitive and neurological functions may improve or stabilize if alcohol use is discontinued and treatment is provided.
Suppose you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of ARBD. In that case, it’s vital to seek medical evaluation and support, including treatment for alcohol dependence and interventions to manage cognitive and neurological deficits.
What is Moderate Alcohol Consumption?
Moderate alcohol consumption refers to drinking alcoholic beverages in a way that is considered responsible and within specific guidelines to minimize potential health risks. The definition of “moderate” can vary depending on the context, but several health organizations and guidelines offer recommendations for moderate alcohol consumption.
Moderate drinking typically involves limited alcohol intake. Guidelines may recommend up to one standard drink per day for women and up to two standard drinks per day for men.
A standard drink in the United States typically contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is roughly equivalent to:
- a 12-ounce beer
- a 5-ounce glass of wine
- 5 ounces of distilled spirits
Moderation also means drinking responsibly and in a way that does not lead to excessive or binge drinking. Binge drinking, defined as consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period, is associated with a higher risk of alcohol-related health problems.
Free by the Sea Can Assist Seniors Who Struggle With Alcohol Addiction
Alzheimer’s Awareness Month is an excellent time to start a conversation about alcohol and Alzheimer’s disease. If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, we can help. Contact us today and find out how our treatment programs can help you.
Dr. Richard Crabbe joined our team in 2019 as our psychiatrist and medical director. He attended the University of Ghana Medical School where he became a Medical Doctor in 1977. From 1978 through 1984, he was a medical officer in the Ghana Navy and provided a variety of services from general medicine to surgeries. He received his Certificate in General Psychology from the American Board of Psychology and Neurology in 2002.