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Alcohol Dementia: Definition and Stages

The long-term effects of an alcohol use disorder on the body include many chronic illnesses, organ damage, and neurological changes, such as alcohol dementia. Moreover, while there is a well-known connection between excessive alcohol consumption and gradual organ damage, less is known about the gradual deterioration of the brain.

Alcohol-related dementia, alcohol dementia, or alcohol-induced cognitive impairment are all forms of secondary dementia. Specifically, secondary dementia implicates another underlying condition or genetics that are responsible for cognitive decline and memory loss. Raising awareness of these adverse conditions is vital to supporting the treatment of alcohol use disorders. 

Overview of Alcohol Dementia

Understanding the stages of alcohol dementia may shed light on signs and symptoms people are experiencing if they are actively involved in an alcohol use disorder. Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction include declines in cognitive function, memory impairment, and challenges in decision-making and problem-solving.

Of course, these symptoms are the result of excessive alcohol use, but the underlying destruction taking place in the brain is not understood. Structural and functional changes can occur in the brain, resulting in alcohol-related brain damage. Although there are similarities, alcohol-related brain damage and alcoholic encephalopathy are separate neurological disorders resulting from excessive alcohol abuse. 

How Does It Occur?

Chronic alcohol abuse is the main contributing factor in developing detrimental effects on the brain. Researchers continue to collect data to pinpoint the damage alcohol abuse causes to brain functions and the development of alcoholic dementia.

There is strong evidence that excessive alcohol abuse interferes with brain chemistry and negatively affects cells in the brain. Treatment for an alcohol use disorder begins with an evaluation or assessment by a healthcare professional; reporting any factors that may point to adverse brain conditions is essential in forming a diagnosis. 

Significant factors or signs contributing to the development of alcoholic dementia include:

  • Quantity and duration of alcohol consumption 
  • Genetic disposition
  • Age (older individuals are at a higher risk)
  • Malnutrition, these deficiencies can lead to cognitive impairment
  • Co-existing health conditions such as liver disease and thiamine deficiency

Progression of Alcoholic Dementia

This form of dementia is a progressive disease that presents with three main stages. The condition varies in progression with each individual. Early detection, intervention, and support can aid in managing symptoms and slowing the progression to improve the quality of life. Treatment for alcohol use disorder can help identify if this condition is present when the initial assessment occurs. 

The stages include:

  • Stage 1: Mild Cognitive Impairment
  • Stage 2: Moderate Cognitive Decline
  • Stage 3: Severe Cognitive Decline

Stage 1: Little to Mild Alcoholic Dementia

In the early or initial stage, individuals may experience mild memory lapses and difficulties with concentration. These issues may not be immediately noticeable, but they start causing slight disruptions in daily life.

The first identifier could be forgetfulness, which makes it challenging to find the correct words to use. Problem-solving abilities slowly decline because the brain’s ability to process information is affected. 

Stage 2: Symptoms of Alcoholic Dementia

Memory problems become more pronounced as the disease progresses, and individuals struggle with complex tasks and problem-solving. Personality changes and behavioral issues may also become evident. Symptoms in this stage are much more noticeable.

Basic daily tasks become complicated, and getting a professional assessment and treatment is essential to prevent further progression. 

Stage 3: Severe Brain Damage

In the late stage, individuals experience significant cognitive decline and functional impairment. Memory loss worsens, language skills deteriorate, and individuals may require assistance with daily activities such as dressing, eating, and personal hygiene.

Symptoms of severe brain damage may be so challenging that around-the-clock care is a requirement. Drastic motor and behavioral changes occur, and in some cases, individuals may be unable to recognize their loved ones. 

Alcoholic Dementia Versus Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is similar to alcoholic dementia and is also the result of excessive alcohol consumption. The difference is that the syndrome indicates a deficiency in thiamine, or vitamin B1, which supports brain cell functioning.

Wernicke-Korsakoff has 2 stages of progression, the first of which includes intense inflammation of the brain. Without treatment, Wernicke’s encephalopathy (brain swelling) can escalate into Korsakoff’s syndrome. 

Is Alcohol Dementia Reversible?

Those who receive treatment may be able to prevent further progression of dementia, but typically, treatment is not able to repair nerve cell damage within the brain. Therapy may include management of the alcohol use disorder, nutritional supplementation, and exercises to improve cognitive function and motor skills.

Medications such as Namenda (memantine) are often utilized in treating dementia, but no specific data is available to prove the benefits for this type of dementia. Introducing a healthy lifestyle with treatment for AUD is beneficial for overall better physical and mental health. 

Signs of Alcohol Dementia

Very Well Health reveals that there is no way to predict whether a person with an alcohol use disorder will develop dementia. Still, long-term excessive drinking of alcohol has a connection to alcoholic dementia.

As the condition progresses, it manifests through various symptoms and cognitive decline. Recognizing these symptoms and understanding the progression of alcoholic dementia is crucial for early detection and intervention.

The stages of alcohol dementia can include any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Memory loss
  • Impairment of judgment
  • Challenges with language selection and communication
  • Distinct changes in mood and behaviors
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Decreasing motor skills
  • Social withdrawal and self-isolation

Detox for Alcohol Use Disorder

The initial treatment step for individuals with an alcohol use disorder is professional detox with medical management and the option of medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Detoxification from alcohol is the safest with professional management of the severe withdrawal symptoms that can occur.

Medication is often helpful in making the patient more comfortable and lessening the intensity of the symptoms. Healthcare professionals are on the lookout for any indication of delirium tremens developing, which can be life-threatening. The presence of alcoholic dementia adds to the challenges of this process. 

Get Expert Care for Alcoholic Dementia

Family and friends who see the drastic changes in their loved one need to take immediate action to treat the alcohol use disorder and prevent severe brain damage. Tennessee Valley Recovery recognizes how debilitating alcoholic dementia can become and provides an initial evaluation of enrollment into the program to determine what stage of decline is present. It is imperative to take action with a professional detox program.

Contact Tennessee Valley Recovery today to discuss a personal treatment strategy.