Alcohol-Induced Dementia: Can Alcohol Abuse Cause Memory Loss?

brain MRI for alcohol-induced dementia

If someone has regularly abused alcohol for years, they may be more likely to develop dementia. The severity of alcohol-induced dementia can vary from person to person, but learning about the risk factors, causes, and treatment outlook for both dementia and alcohol use disorder can help you understand the importance of getting treatment.

Related post: Chest Pain After Drinking Alcohol: Causes and Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

How alcohol abuse affects the brain

To begin, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition and a brain disorder. It affects millions of people in the U.S. alone. When someone has AUD, they’re unable to stop or control their alcohol use. Brain changes due to chronic and excessive alcohol abuse cause this behavior.1

Consequently, heavy drinking has extensive and far-reaching effects on the brain, from simple memory “slips” to permanent and debilitating conditions that require ongoing treatment. Factors that influence how alcohol affects the brain, and the severity of those effects, include:2

  • How much a person drinks
  • How often they drink
  • The person’s gender, genetics, and family history of alcohol addiction
  • How long someone has been drinking and the age at which they started
  • Whether they are at risk as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure; and 
  • The person’s  general health status

What is alcohol-induced dementia?

If you don’t drink excessively, you don’t have to worry about developing alcohol-induced dementia. But if you’re wondering, “Can you get dementia from alcohol abuse?,” the answer is yes.

Alcohol-induced dementia is a type of alcohol-related brain damage. It can cause memory loss, difficulty completing daily tasks, and difficulty completing more complex tasks too. Research studies show excessive alcohol abuse is associated with changes to brain structure. These changes increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and different types of dementia. Although chronic and heavy alcohol consumption is just one contributing risk factor of dementia, it’s a significant one. For example, a recent study found heavy drinking increased the risk of dementia by three times.3 And both young and older individuals can develop alcohol-induced dementia.

First, the signs and symptoms of alcohol-related dementia can vary from person to person. However, a brain scan of someone with this condition will reveal brain tissue changes, particularly in the brain’s frontal lobes.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, some symptoms of alcohol-related dementia include difficulties with:4

  • Staying focused on a task without getting distracted
  • Solving problems
  • Planning and organizing
  • Setting goals
  • Making decisions and judgments
  • Being motivated to do tasks
  • Controlling emotions (apathy, depression, and irritability are common)
  • Understanding how other people think or feel
  • Quickly forgetting the details of a conversation
  • Recalling knowledge and events (such as where they used to live)
  • Balancing and physical coordination

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Additionally, excessive alcohol abuse can also cause a rare type of dementia called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). Also known as “wet brain,” WKS is the result of a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, which is more common among long-term heavy drinkers.5 WKS has two stages: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome. 

  • Wernicke encephalopathy damages the lower parts of the brain, called the thalamus and hypothalamus. Symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include:
  • Confusion
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Leg tremors
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Eye drooping
  • Double vision
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Loss of brain activity that can lead to coma or death
  • Korsakoff syndrome usually develops after the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy subside. It’s the result of permanent damage to the parts of the brain involved with memory. Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:
  • Inability to form new memories
  • Moderate to severe loss of memory
  • Making up stories
  • Hallucinations 

Furthermore, WKS is reversible if a doctor catches it early enough. Unfortunately, if you don’t get treatment, wet brain will gradually get worse. Over time, it can lead to irreversible brain damage that causes confusion, physical coordination problems, and hallucinations. Ultimately, it can be life-threatening.

Since alcohol withdrawal or related medical conditions can sometimes mimic symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, medical professionals typically make a diagnosis when a person is sober.

How do you know if you have brain damage from alcohol?

Initially, a doctor will need to rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms before diagnosing you with alcohol-induced dementia. Most often, this process will include a psychiatric exam, physical exam, blood work, and several different types of testing. A doctor will also gather detailed information about your medical history, family history, and current symptoms. Finally, based on the results of this process, the doctor will make a diagnosis.

Is there treatment for alcoholic dementia?

If a doctor diagnoses you with alcohol-induced dementia, the treatment may vary, depending on the severity of your condition and your symptoms. However, your doctor might design a treatment plan that involves medication, evidence-based methods to strengthen your memory, and community support.6 

If you have an alcohol use disorder and also receive an alcoholic dementia diagnosis, it might be difficult for you to recognize the need for AUD treatment. However, alcohol detox and rehab can help reverse the symptoms of WKS and dementia and improve your treatment outlook. 

Can alcoholic dementia be reversed?

Fortunately, if a doctor catches it early enough, medical care helps to reverse alcoholic dementia and you can recover. However, getting medical treatment and going to alcohol rehab are essential components of getting healthy again. When you first seek treatment, you’ll need to complete an inpatient alcohol detox program. Detox will manage your withdrawal symptoms. It will also help you safely break your physical dependence on alcohol. Once you complete detox, you’ll be in a stable, sober state. By then, you’ll ideally be ready and willing to get help in rehab.

After detox, alcohol rehab can help you address the underlying causes of your alcohol abuse so you can learn how to live without it. Your treatment team will likely design a treatment program that consists of cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, doses of thiamine, and a balanced diet to help your body recover from its nutritional deficiency.

Get help for alcohol addiction today

In conclusion, if you or a loved one has alcohol-induced dementia, there’s still hope for recovery. Get help by starting with detox Austin, TX right away. At Briarwood Detox Center, we offer individualized detox programs to help people cope with alcohol withdrawal symptoms and begin establishing a new life. Our licensed and experienced staff is equipped to help you recover from any nutritional deficiencies, manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and provide clinical support as you adjust to sobriety. Please call (512) 262-4426 or contact us online today to get started.


  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder 
  2. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm 
  3. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667%2818%2930031-8/fulltext 
  4. https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/types-dementia/alcohol-related-dementia 
  5. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000771.htm 
  6. https://www.dementia.org.au/about-dementia/types-of-dementia/alcohol-related-dementia 


Get Help Now

    Call Now Button