What is Alcohol Dementia: Causes, Symptoms, Stages, Treatment, Complications

We all know about the negative effects of alcohol. It is also true that alcohol can destroy the mental functioning. Alcohol dementia is a kind of brain disorder that is caused due to long exposure to alcohol. If you are interested in knowing more about this condition, then read the following array of the article where we have discussed about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatments and complications of Alcohol dementia.

What is Alcohol Dementia?

What is Alcohol Dementia?

Alcohol dementia is a brain disorder that is seen is people who have been abusing alcohol on a great level for a long period of time. Like other dementia, alcohol dementia is a dementia where there is impairment in cognition, where there is a change in the functioning of the brain; and this change is usually a permanent change. This change in brain functioning is due to the change in actual brain cells and the changes in the vascular structures of the brain or the blood flow to the brain actually changes. This Alcohol dementia, like other dementia is mostly seen in older people and the affected people begin to show lack of recognition and memory loss.

There are mainly two stages in alcohol dementia with different symptoms; and these two stages include the Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Karsakoff psychosis syndrome. Wernicke’s encephalopathy when left untreated, progresses to Karsakoff psychosis. Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Karsakoff psychosis is together also known as Wernicke-Karsakoff psychosis syndrome.

It is very difficult to reverse Alcohol dementia. It must be noted that Alcohol dementia is chronic and it is permanent. The best way one can treat or reduce the symptoms of Alcohol dementia is to catch the condition early and begin its prescribed treatment.

Causes Of Alcohol Dementia:

We already know that excessive consumption of alcohol for a long period of time can cause alcohol dementia. One of the reasons behind this is that of nutrition. Excess of alcohol can result in a nutritional loss. Thiamine or Vitamin B1, is a vitamin that suffers when an individual consume alcohol for a long time. Alcohol can actually prevent the absorption of Vitamin B1 in the body, that leads to alcohol dementia. Our nerve cells require thiamine to function, and a chronic lack of thiamine results in the problem of dementia.

Symptoms Of Alcohol Dementia:

The symptoms of alcohol dementia mainly depend on the stage of the syndrome. There are usually two stages that a person with alcohol dementia passes through, and they are; the Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Karsakoff psychosis. In case of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, the patient may experience the following symptoms:

Mental Confusion:

There is a mental confusion experienced in the person affected with alcohol dementia. The person may also be not able to solve problems because of this and also can’t make simple decisions.

Decision Making Problems:

Alcohol dementia has a lot of symptoms, and one of them is decision making issue. Since the brain cognition is affected here, the patient may find it really difficult to make decisions and even string together thoughts.

Agitation And Paranoia:

Agitation or a state of anxiety or nervousness is experienced in people with alcohol dementia. They may also experience paranoia, where the patient feels that people are out to get you and you are really anxious and fearful about it.

Lack Of Proper Communication:

The affected person finds it difficult to have proper communication with others. The alcohol dementia patient doesn’t process responses, repeats questions, stories and is unable to find the right word at the right time.

Lack of Muscle Coordination or Ataxia:

There is also a lack of proper muscle coordination or Ataxia in the case of people suffering from the Wernick’s encephalopathy stage of alcohol dementia.

Eye Problems:

Eye problems include involuntary eye movements, unequal pupils, and impaired eye movements.

When Wernick’s encephalopathy progresses to Karasakoff psychosis, the symptoms may be even more serious. Symptoms in case of Korsakoff psychosis include the following.

Inability to Create New Memories:

There is a loss of the ability to create new memories in people affected with alcohol dementia.

False Memories:

There might also be false memories in cases of the affected person. False memory is actually a psychological phenomenon where the individual recalls something that actually did not happen.

Loss of Memories And Loss of Recognition:

The worst part of alcohol dementia is the symptom of loss of recognition. The affected person fails to recognize people, things and places. Some patients may even fail to recognize their own family members and this would be really frustrating.

There is also a short term memory loss, where the patient may not be able to remember what happened recently, however may be able to remember events from years ago.


Alcohol dementia patients may experience hallucination which is a perception in the absence of external stimulus, that has qualities of real perception. The patients might hear voices, smell odour or may feel like seeing things that are really not present.

NOTE: It must be mentioned that if the symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is left untreated, it will progress to coma and even death.

Diagnosis Of Alcohol Dementia:

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and if you are a heavy drinker since long, then you must see your doctor and get yourself diagnosed as soon as possible. It is difficult to diagnose alcohol dementia, as it has similar symptoms to those of other forms of dementia. Sometimes even if you consume plenty of alcohol, your dementia may not be alcohol-related dementia.

Your doctor will prescribe you for some tests to screen for dementia at first. Folstein Mini-Mental Status examination is one such test. It is a short test and can help determine whether or not you have dementia. Once it is clear that you have dementia, your doctors would look for some other criteria that might suggest that it is alcohol dementia. Below are some of these criteria.

You may have cognitive impairments while you are drunk. However, in case of alcohol dementia, the symptoms of cognitive impairments may exist in you even after the alcohol leaves your system.

There must be evidence that the cognitive impairments in the patient are linked to the patient’s abuse of alcohol. The evidence comes in the form of personal history, laboratory work and physical examination.

Physical Examination and Tests:

Examining the nervous or muscular system can reveal the damage to many of the nerve systems of the body that has been damaged by alcohol dementia; including the abnormal eye movement, reduced or abnormal reflexes, low blood pressure, low body temperature, fast pulse, muscle weakness and muscle atrophy and problems with walk and coordination.

Apart from this, an individual with alcohol dementia may also appear poorly nourished. Some of the tests that can be used to check the nutrition level of an affected person; include the Serum albumin, Serum vitamin B1 levels, and Transketolase activity in RBCs. Moreover, the liver enzymes in people with long-term alcohol abuse, may be high.

Treatments of Alcohol Dementia:


A medication named Memantine that is used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, is also a medication that is used to treat alcoholism and brain damage. So, memantine can be a major medical help for people suffering from alcohol dementia. With this, some patients may get back some of their memory and functions.

Thiamine Therapy:

Thiamine therapy can be one of the treatment methods for alcohol dementia. The goal of the treatment in alcohol dementia is to fix the thiamine deficiency. This would stop the progression of dementia. However, in case there is an extensive damage to the brain already, there may be a little hope of a complete recovery. With such a treatment, it is usually necessary for the patient to stay in hospital until the nutritional deficiency is corrected using the Intravenous infusions or injections of thiamine or vitamin B1. Thiamine therapy tends to be more effective at treating the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy rather than the loss of memory.

Treating Alcohol Dementia With Diet:

Treating alcohol dementia with diet could also be considered as a major treatment. You must limit your alcohol intake and begin to eat a well-balanced diet. Having healthy foods and taking essential supplements is essential so that the brain can receive the nutrition once again and function in increasing cognition.

Quit Alcohol:

It is highly essential for you to quit alcohol, if you have alcohol dementia. If the brain damage is mild in case of the dementia, limiting alcohol consumption can actually help you mend up a good life in recovery. However, those who have suffered a permanent damage to the brain in alcohol dementia, it is difficult to recover completely, however their life would improve greatly once they quit alcohol.

It must be mentioned that indivudals who have been abusing alcohol since long and who quit alcohol, may have to deal with physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms that would be difficult to resist. However, they need to learn how to live a life free for addiction. People may be benefited greatly from rehab and other forms of support.

Complications Associated With Alcohol Dementia:

Injury Due To Falls:

Injury due to falls can be a common complication in people with alcohol dementia. This is because there may be problem in proper balance and difficulty walking.

Shortened Life Span:

Usually people with alcohol dementia have a shortened life span.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms:

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms like irritability, mood swings, nausea, vomiting, agitation, fast heart rate, anxiety, nervousness, restlessness, headache, insomnia and loss of appetite, may be experienced in patients who are under their treatment process and are trying to limit alcohol intake.


Alcohol dementia causes neurodegeneration due to the potential mechanisms like inflammatory processes, oxidative stress, and DNA damage. Symptoms like permanent loss of thinking skills, loss of memory, anxiety, agitation, mood changes, agitation, forgetfulness, and a loss of inhibition are some of the signs of neurodegenration.

KS-related abnormalities:

Karsakoff psychosis related abnormalities may persist even after treatment of alcohol dementia. Some of these abnormalities include the atrophy in the mammilary bodies, cerebellar vermis and enlargement of the third ventricle.

Stigma Behind Alcohol Dementia:

One of the most serious complication of alcohol dementia is actually, the stigma behind alcohol dementia. There is a stigma associated with alcohol addiction and also with the mental health. It becomes difficult to share or discuss about the problem with others and even with the doctor. However, it becomes easier when once discussed with the doctor.


Now that we know that chronic alcohol abuse for a longer period of time and poor nutrition results in alcohol dementia; you would definitely try to keep away from alcohol and also eat a balanced diet. Take foods rich in thiamine or vitamin B1, such as grains, lentils, bananas and potatoes and avoid thiamine deficiency. Heavy drinkers must try to limit their alcohol intake. It must be noted that safe limit for alcohol use is only 1 drink per day for women and for those above 65 years of age, and 2 drinks per day for men. Stay within safe limits and you would reduce the risk of developing alcohol dementia.

Apart from this, also seek help whenever required. Talk to a family member, or a friend, or meet a counselor or talk to your doctor about your problem and seek the appropriate medical attention.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 29, 2018

Recent Posts

Related Posts