Last Updated on October 1, 2021
Alcohol is one of the most abused substances in the country. Excessive drinking is responsible for thousands of accidents, and leads to many health risks due to the damage caused to internal organs. Although there has been confusion about the link between alcohol and dementia, new research is making that connection more clear. In fact, in one recent study1, alcohol use disorder was the strongest predictor of a dementia diagnosis out of all possible risk factors.
Links Between Excessive Alcohol Consumption and Dementia
Most people associate the term dementia with Alzheimer’s disease, but that is only one form of this brain condition. Dementia is a steady decline in cognitive abilities that affects around 5 percent of older adults2. This disability impairs brain functions like memory and judgment, and can interfere with daily functioning.
A number of factors contribute to dementia, including age, genetics, and smoking. Yet, when looking at all types of dementia, excessive alcohol consumption is an underlying risk factor across the board. Why? Alcohol affects the brain in a few key ways:
- When alcohol breaks down, it produces acetaldehyde3, a chemical compound toxic to brain cells.
- Heavy drinking can lead to thiamine deficiency, causing impaired brain function.
- Alcohol misuse raises the risk of vascular dementia, due to alcohol’s ability to increase blood pressure.
There are several subtypes of dementia that are directly linked to excessive drinking:
Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is a broad term that describes any dementia tied to alcohol use disorder. When large amounts of alcohol are consumed, this behavior prevents neurons from regenerating, causing them to die. ARBD generally develops among middle-aged to older adults.
Also called wet brain, this highly prevalent form of alcohol-related dementia is a combination of two conditions that often occur together, due to thiamine deficiency:
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy: This life-threatening neurological illness is characterized by abnormal eye movements, confusion, a loss of coordination, and stumbling. Wernicke’s often occurs right before Korsakoff’s.
- Korsakoff’s dementia: This condition refers to a cluster of symptoms associated with cognitive difficulties, often identified due to chronic memory loss.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can sometimes clear up if a person stops drinking. In other cases, it can become permanent—especially among those who’ve struggled with alcohol misuse for decades.
Can Alcohol Cause Early-Onset Dementia?
People with drinking problems are at especially high risk of developing early-onset dementia. A study published in The Lancet Public Health4 showed that a majority of those diagnosed with early-onset dementia also had an alcohol use disorder or alcohol-related brain damage.
Wine and Dementia
Light to moderate alcohol consumption, especially drinking a glass of red wine, has been shown to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Because of its vascular benefits, some believe that drinking wine in moderation might also reduce the risk of dementia in older adults. However, drinking alcohol of any kind has not been conclusively linked to lowering dementia risk.
Lower Your Risk of Alcohol-Related Dementia
If you worry that your heavy drinking habits may lead to long-term health problems like dementia, quitting or cutting back can help. If you’re struggling to make a change on your own, Ria Health is one online program that offers customized care from the comfort of your home. Anti-craving medications combined with coaching, medical advice, and other support services are all available through an app on your phone.