Most people know that alcohol can cause short term memory loss, but are you aware of the long-term effects of alcohol on the brain? Alcohol-related dementia is one such effect. Not everyone gets alcoholic dementia, but it can result from brain damage which occurs over years of excessive drinking. In general, dementia (not necessarily alcohol induced dementia), occurs in people age 65 and older, but alcoholic dementia is different. This disease can affect people who are as young as age 30 (though it is still more common in older drinkers).
Alcohol dementia symptoms are very similar to those acute psychological symptoms which result from drinking. Many drinkers are familiar with the confusion, poor judgment, disconnection, and personality changes which can result from a night of binge drinking, not to mention the memory gap in the morning. If you can picture those symptoms extended over a chronic time period, you have a pretty good idea of what alcoholic dementia is like.
How do you know if alcoholic dementia may be developing?
There are a number of signs you can look for — whether in yourself or in someone else. Confusion and memory loss (recurrent memory problems) are just a couple of the more common symptoms. Other symptoms may involve repetition in conversation, like asking the same questions on loop or repeating the same information over and over again. If you have ever met a patient with Alzheimer’s Disease, then you are probably very familiar with this symptom. It is a symptom of alcoholic dementia as well, which is why the two are often very hard to tell apart.
If you are the one with the dementia, you may not realize it at all. You may repeat the same information on loop over and over again without realizing you are doing it, believing each time is the first time. As with Alzheimer’s Disease, patients with dementia may be completely functional in other regards, being talented, intelligent, and clever with other abilities.
Another related condition to be aware of is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. The term is often used interchangeably with alcoholic dementia, but it is actually a related condition and not the same disease. A given patient may have both or either.
With this syndrome, the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is damaged in multiple places. Sometimes nerves throughout the body are also damaged. It results from vitamin B-1 deficiency, which is a complication of alcoholism. Confabulation is the most distinct symptom which occurs with this disorder. With confabulation, a patient tells “honest lies.” In other words, they present stories about their past and present which are fictional, but which they themselves believe completely.
If you know an alcoholic who seems to be exhibiting unusual psychological symptoms and behaviors, it is possible that person is developing dementia, even if he or she is not very old. Here is a summary of the warning signs you should be on the lookout for:
- Excessive anger or irritability.
- Paranoia and jealousy.
- Mood swings.
- Flat emotions and insensitivity to the feelings of others.
- Lost inhibitions.
- Fear of loneliness.
- Repetition in conversation, whether of stories or questions.
- The inability to keep track of a conversation’s progression.
- Extra hunting for words.
- Difficulty with problem solving related tasks, even familiar ones.
- Poor follow-through on projects.
- Poor recognition of familiar people and places.
- An improper sense of the passage of time.
- Personality changes.
The Importance Of Prevention
The thing to know about dementia if you are an alcoholic is that you may not even notice if you begin to develop it. In fact, you probably won’t notice, because your judgment is impaired, and your sense of reality is disconnected. You will not know you are making up stories or repeating questions or information, and you may attribute your emotional changes to other events in your life, misinterpreting other peoples’ actions based on alcoholic delusions.
Alcohol induced dementia doesn’t happen overnight – its the result of damage caused by extended, chronic alcohol abuse. If you do not yet have the symptoms of alcoholic dementia, you should be very grateful, and stop drinking before it has a chance to take hold of you.