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Alcoholism dementia is a neurological disorder that develops in people who drink high volumes of alcohol over a sustained period of time. Also known as alcohol dementia or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, this condition can be treated if it is caught in the early stages, reversing some of the damage and allowing the patient to live a normal life. While many people associate dementia with aging, people can develop alcoholism dementia as early as their 30s, and symptoms of cognitive disturbances in people of this age could be warning signs of early dementia.
People develop alcoholism dementia because of vitamin deficiencies, particularly low levels of thiamine. This condition can also develop in people with malnutrition. The brain relies on copious nutrients to function and low levels will, over time, impair cognitive function. If the condition is caught and the patient is weaned off alcohol and provided with adequate nutrition, including vitamin supplementation, the patient can regain many cognitive abilities.
Symptoms of alcoholism dementia can include behavioral changes, memory gaps, inability to acquire new information, and a shaky gait. Patients can also develop tremors and tend to experience confusion. They may ask the same questions over and over and can become agitated when reminded that they have already asked. As with other dementias, the changes to the brain can also be associated with depression, as patients may recognize that something is wrong and experience emotional distress and strain.
For alcoholism dementia to set in, people usually need to drink four to six strong drinks every day for a long time. People who drink at lower levels are less at risk, as are people who experience a drinking binge and then return to healthier alcohol consumption habits. A person who binges for a week can be at risk of other health complications, but the damage to the brain involved in alcoholism dementia takes time to set in.
Malnutrition is a common problem for alcoholics and in addition to causing alcoholism dementia, it can also lead to other health problems. Patients may experience hair loss, organ damage, and generalized physical weakness. Over time, these conditions can become very serious. The complications of alcoholism can be fatal in some cases and in others will cause permanent health problems for the patient, even if a drinking cessation program is successful. Intervening early when alcoholism develops can increase the chances of a full recovery for the patient.