Alcohol dementia is the most common form of substance-induced persisting dementia. Let's find out more about this preventable form of memory loss.
First, what do we mean by heavy drinking?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for men, heavy drinking is generally defined as consuming an average of more than 2 drinks per day. For women, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming an average of more than 1 drink per day.
Over time, causally years, these people may be at risk for the development of alcohol dementia.
From a brain perspective, alcohol intoxication can be harmful for a variety of reasons. These include poor judgment, loss of balance and motor skills, reduced reaction time, and slurred speech.
Coma and death can occur if alcohol is consumed rapidly and in large amounts. Tragically, we hear every year about how college students sometimes engage in this dangerous behavior.
Alcohol affects every organ of the human body. As a central nervous system depressant it quickly is absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream.
Alcohol undergoes changes in the liver by enzymes. Unfortunately, the liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at one time.
As a result, the excess alcohol circulates throughout the body and of course to the brain.
The level of the effect of the alcohol on the body and brain is directly related to the amount the person has consumed.
Dementia from alcoholism is associated with decline in Anterograde and Retrograde Memory, the ability to solve abstract problems, and visual perceptual abilities.
Often, we do not focus on psychological health as vigilantly as we do an individual’s physical health, regardless of gender or age. But like our physical wellbeing, we must also be attentive to our psychological, or mental, state to consider ourselves fully fit.
What does this mean?
Memory for things that happened in the past are lost or disrupted by alcohol dementia. New memories are more difficult to form. Understanding how words and visual concepts relate together is disrupted. Finally, being able to perceive things and understand what they mean is decreased.
Not only can prolonged and excessive use of alcohol cause poor brain functioning but alcohol use can make a person more likely to have a traumatic brain injury.
In my clinical experience, people have had more severe brain injuries from falls or motor vehicle accidents when they have consumed alcohol.
IMPORTANT: Alcohol is an anticoagulant (blood thinner). Thus, during a fall or crash a person is more likely to bleed on the brain causing death or potentially permanent brain tissue injury.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are approximately 79,000 deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use each year in the United States.
Excessive alcohol use the 3rd leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the United States.
CDC data also indicates that in 2005, there were more than 1.6 million hospitalizations and more than 4 million emergency room visits for alcohol-related conditions.
In addition to alcohol dementia, people who engage in prolonged alcohol abuse are more at risk for other neurological problems such as stroke and neuropathy(damage to nerves in the body).
So what can be done.
The obvious answer is prevention through moderation in alcohol consumption on a regular basis and avoidance of binge drinking.
Since prolonged alcohol toxicity is associated with nutritional deficiency proper diet, exercise and judicious use of vitamins and supplements can be very helpful in reversing the effects of excessive use.
If you or someone you know uses alcohol excessively they may be at risk for alcohol dementia, it is important to seek the guidance of a skilled clinician who works with this problem.
Neuropsychologists and neurologists can test for the effects of prolonged alcohol use and provided guidance for how to improve cognitive functioning.
For more information on this topic consider these resources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI). Atlanta, GA: CDC. (2008)
EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL ON MEMORY
How to Change Your Drinking: a Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol (2nd edition) by Kenneth Anderson and G. Alan Marlatt PhD.