Alcohol Dementia: Proven Risks

What is Alcoholic Dementia?

Alcohol dementia infographic by Nicole R


Dementia (most commonly caused by Alzheimer’s disease) can present itself in many forms. ‘Alcohol dementia’ (or alcoholic/alcohol related dementia) refers to a type of dementia that can result from alcohol use disorders, or when an individual drinks excessive quantities of alcohol on a regular basis, typically leading to brain damage. 

Those who suffer from dementia often experience a significant impairment to their cognitive function abilities, including their thinking, recollecting, reasoning and mental skills; it is also not uncommon for these individuals to experience personality changes. Unlike many other types of dementia, alcohol related dementia does have the ability to be improved with the right treatment process.

Different Varieties of Dementia

It is important to differentiate between alcohol related dementia and other forms of dementia, as many of them are associated with the same symptoms (decreased problem solving skills, a decline in a person’s memory, impaired cognitive function, etc.).

It is also possible for an individual to suffer from a form of mixed dementia, in which their brain is experiencing changes associated with more than one type of dementia, but are occurring simultaneously. 

For example, the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease being present alongside changes in the blood vessels that typically occur as a result of Vascular dementia; or, in combination with the abnormal protein bodies known as Lewy Bodies (typically found in those with Parkinson’s Disease dementia). In some cases, all three of these can occur simultaneously.

An older man drinks a shot of liquor, unaware of the effects on his alcohol dementia symptoms

Root Causes of Alcohol Dementia

As suggested by the name, alcoholic dementia is developed through regularly drinking above average levels of alcohol, or who partake in binge-drinking (regularly bringing blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels at or above 0.08 percent). This often leads to nutritional deficiencies in chronic alcoholics, making these individuals more susceptible to brain damage.   

Other causes of alcohol dementia can include: 

  • Age. Individuals over the age of 65 are at a greater risk of developing dementia; those who partake in heavy drinking at a young age are more likely to develop dementia earlier on in life.
  • Injury to the Head. Severe injuries or trauma to the head (or any form of brain injury), especially if they have occurred multiple times, can increase a person’s likelihood of developing dementia.
  • Mental Health. Individuals who suffer from a neuropsychiatric disease such as depression, anxiety, etc., particularly those reliant upon alcohol, are more likely to develop alcohol related dementia. 
  • Other Health Problems. Those suffering from high blood pressure, have previously suffered a stroke, high cholesterol levels, have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, etc. may be more likely to develop alcohol related dementia.
  • Other Forms of Substance Use. Excessive smoking (or other forms of substance abuse), particularly in combination with heavy alcohol consumption, has been linked as a risk factor in developing this specific type of dementia.
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Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholic Dementia

Of the many types of dementia, alcohol related dementia is typically associated with difficulties in normal cognitive function, which may be expressed through:

  • Task management. Individuals may struggle to effectively perform tasks, manage time, or avoid distraction from their responsibilities.
  • Problem Solving. Individuals may find it hard to process and respond to day-to-day problems, and/or organize and plan their day.
  • Setting and Maintaining Goals. Those with this type of dementia may have difficulty making decisions, impaired judgment, and difficulty keeping track of short-term and long-term goals.
  • Motivation. Individuals may experience not having enough energy to carry out daily activities, such as home/work responsibilities, or even eating and may be prone to emotional outbursts.
  • Understanding Others. Resonating, empathizing, and/or communicating with others may be harder for those suffering from alcoholic dementia.

Psychological Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Dementia

Alcohol dementia can often cause shrinkages in certain parts of the brain (often the frontal lobe), and can also lead to problems with an individual’s memory, mood, and balance.


  • Memory. Individuals may not be able to accurately (or at all) recall certain events, places, people, conversations, or learned knowledge.


  • Mood. Alcohol related dementia can cause depression, irritability, and mood swings, which can make it harder for those who suffer from it to stop drinking, and/or seeking treatment.


  • Balance. Even if not under the influence of alcohol, damage caused to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination can cause individuals to be unsteady and more prone to accidents; abnormal reflexes and slowed response times may also occur.


A brain in detail, to show the concept of alcohol-induced dementia and wet brain

Alcoholic Dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Drinking excessively can also lead to the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), also known as Wet Brain, often as a result of a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency.

Individuals struggling with alcohol addictions and/or disorders tend to be the most commonly linked group to this syndrome, as alcohol prevents proper absorption of thiamine into the body. WKS presents similar symptoms to alcohol related dementia, including memory loss, lack of coordination, and impaired cognition. 

While other factors (i.e. not maintaining a balanced diet) can lead to the development of WKS, excessive drinking is the most common cause. Furthermore, alcohol use in excess can cause damage to nerve cells. 

If heavy drinking behaviors continue on a regular basis, over time, this can cause the individual’s brain cells to die and their brain tissue to shrink; this is known as Frontotemporal dementia (FTP) and can have drastic effects on an individual’s personality, behavior, language, and movement. Other risk factors include causing damage to blood vessels, as well as an increased likelihood of malnutrition due to a lack of vitamin B1. 

The Stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome     

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be separated into two different stages: ‘Wernicke’s encephalopathy,’ and ‘Korsakoff’s syndrome.’ Wernicke encephalopathy occurs when an individual experiences a severe swelling of the brain, alongside disorientation, abnormal eye movement decreased, poor balance, and malnourishment (as the individual is not letting their body convert food into energy, instead relying on alcohol). 

Korsakoff’s syndrome occurs when the first stage is not treated properly or in a timely manner, and develops as a more long-term condition. It is not uncommon for those with Korsakoff syndrome to make up information they believe to be completely real, as well as experience vivid hallucinations. 

In addition, individuals who do not receive treatment for Wernicke encephalopathy may develop Korsakoff psychosis, of which a person’s symptoms may include: experiencing problems with their memory, excessive confusion, and changes in behavior.

While similar in cause and nature, WKS can occur independently from alcohol related dementia.


Diagnosing Alcoholic Dementia

Diagnosing alcohol dementia can be difficult, as it requires full transparency from the person seeking treatment in regard to their drinking habits, and a complicated assessment process. Furthermore, some doctors require their patients to quit alcohol use for several weeks beforehand in order to help rule out other medical conditions as the cause of their symptoms. 

Other doctors may simply require the patient to not be under alcoholic influence at the time of their assessment (although the diagnosis might not be as certain as if they had already been sober for a significant amount of time).

Components of Testing for Alcoholic Dementia

The assessment itself will likely include a full physical examination, a detailed recording of the individual’s symptom history and resulting impacts on their life; any mood or mental health disorders will likely be taken into account as well, such as depression, anxiety, etc. 

The patient may also be required to get a brain scan in order to further disprove any other medical conditions that may be causing their symptoms (i.e. stroke, previous head injuries, etc.), and will need to be cleared of possibly having another form of dementia.

Furthermore, severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as Delirium Tremens, or the “DTs” will need to be removed as a possible cause for the individual’s symptoms. Delirium Tremens typically occurs when an individual chooses to suddenly stop drinking after having done so in an excessive fashion for a long period of time, and involves sudden and often quite severe changes to the nervous system.

Receiving a Diagnosis for Alcoholic Dementia

In order to be diagnosed with alcohol dementia, an individual will likely suffer from memory problems, and difficulty maintaining thought processes and effective reasoning skills that affect their daily life, with the most likely cause being excessive alcohol consumption.

A shot of liquor in a glass resembles the brain, to illustrate the concept of is alcohol dementia reversible

Is Alcoholic Dementia Reversible? 

With proper treatment and the right support system, those suffering from alcohol related dementia have the possibility to stop their symptoms from worsening, and may even be able to improve them over time. Quitting drinking, taking high doses of thiamine vitamin B1, and maintaining a healthy diet can help significantly improve an individual’s symptoms. However, continuing to drink heavily and maintaining unhealthy habits will only increase the severity of their symptoms.

Seeking and Providing Support for Alcoholic Dementia

Providing support for someone struggling with an alcohol addiction presents its own challenges; for those who are suffering from, or who know someone affected by, alcohol related dementia, this can be even more difficult. The symptoms of alcohol related dementia may cause those affected to be more prone to confusion, difficulties controlling their emotions, distraction, as well as anxiety, agitation, or hallucinations.

Treating Alcoholic Dementia

In some cases, individuals may be given drugs that have a similar effect on the brain as alcohol in order to ease withdrawal symptoms, which will be gradually reduced throughout their treatment. Fluids and salts, as well as high doses of thiamine (vitamin B1) via injection will likely also be administered.

Factors that Influence Treatment of Alcoholic Dementia

Ultimately, finding the right treatment options will depend on the individual’s situation, and may vary based on the person and severity of their symptoms. In addition to medication and supplemental provisions, treatment options can include counseling and/or therapy.

This can include substance abuse treatment, as well as addiction treatment, such as seeing a therapist and/or attending self-help groups to help cope with and stay clean of their alcohol addiction. It is also important for those receiving treatment to maintain balanced diets, in order to ensure their bodies are receiving proper nourishment.

Of course, it is important to remember that certain symptoms of alcohol related dementia may cause affected individuals to experience difficulties in participating in these treatment programs, as they may be more susceptible to impulsivity, losing focus, and denial. This is particularly relevant for those dealing with homelessness, loss of connection with their family and/or loved ones, and/or mental illness, as going through addiction treatment can be very difficult. 

Thus, finding the right support system is crucial to keeping them on their road to recovery. Finding professionals who have experience with providing treatment to those struggling with alcohol related dementia can be a great benefit to those seeking help for alcohol use disorders.

An older mans smiles during exercise, happy at having found effective treatment for signs of alcoholic dementia

Seeking Treatment Options for Dual Diagnosis

When an individual suffers both from a substance abuse disorder in addition to a mental health condition, it can make the process of finding and receiving help even harder. For those struggling with alcohol addiction, depression is the most common dual diagnosis they will receive (and vice versa). Both disorders will likely need to be treated concurrently, requiring heavily specialized treatment and experienced professionals to deliver and assist with this process. 


While this can certainly seem like a difficult and intimidating road to recovery, by no means is it impossible. For those who have received a dual diagnosis, receiving the proper care and maintaining a healthy support system can drastically improve their chances of recovery and achieving sobriety.

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Finding the Right Treatment Options


Struggling with addiction is a hard and often isolating experience, and figuring out where to start in the recovery process can be challenging. That’s why at Find Addiction Rehabs, our team is dedicated to providing you with treatment options that best suit your needs. From medically supervised detoxes, inpatient treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment, to regular outpatient programs, we have you covered. In some cases, we may even be able to get you enrolled in a recovery facility within 24 hours.


Through simply contacting us using the form on our website, or by calling our 24/7 addiction hotline at 877-537-1481, you can find out which facilities and programs are best suited to your needs. Receiving the care you need can be hard, but it doesn’t have to feel impossible; let us help you take the first steps on your path to recovery. 


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