When most people think about dementia, the first term that comes to mind is Alzheimer’s disease. Many people are also familiar with Vascular dementia or Lewy body dementia. But one form of dementia that isn’t on everyone’s lips is a condition called Korsakoff Syndrome. This condition is most commonly the result of excess alcohol intake over a period of years. In other words, while dementia may manifest for multiple reasons, this type of dementia is induced by heavy drinking.
Exploring the Alcohol-Dementia Connection
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that every day around 240 Americans die from alcohol-related causes. That adds up to 88,00 deaths on average, annually.
Widely used and often-abused, many of us know someone whose life has been devastated by alcohol addiction. Besides the ravages of addiction, over-consumption can lead to heart disease, liver problems, numerous cancers, and a weakened immune system, to name just a few.
Alcohol can cause brain damage, killing off brain cells faster than they can regenerate. For some unfortunate souls, too much elbow bending paves the way for serious memory problems, including dementia.
Korsakoff Syndrome: A Little Known, Big-Time Problem
Korsakoff Syndrome belongs to a family of disorders known as Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). Simply put, ARBD may happen when someone over-indulges in adult beverages over a course of years.
Korsakoff syndrome (KS) is specifically related to an extreme deficiency of vitamin B-1, which is also known as thiamine. While there can be other causes, Korsakoff syndrome typically results from alcohol abuse.
Thiamine plays a vital role in helping brain cells create energy. Without enough thiamine, the brain is unable to produce the energy that’s necessary for someone to function efficiently.
Signs and Symptoms of Korsakoff Syndrome
Korsakoff syndrome causes chronic memory loss. People living with KS find it difficult to handle day-to-day activities. If your loved one has KS, you might see them struggle with learning something new. You may also notice changes in their personality, or see them become apathetic about things they once cared about.
It is also not uncommon for people with the disorder to make something up and present it as the truth. Just know that this is not intentional, but that their brains are trying to make sense of memory gaps. They are not consciously making things up. Doctors call this behavior confabulation.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: a Tragic One-Two Punch
Korsakoff syndrome has a common precursor called Wernicke encephalopathy (WE). Wernicke encephalopathy is a severe brain reaction to dangerously low thiamine levels. WE is a four-alarm emergency that erupts into a potentially fatal failure of brain function. Symptoms may include coordination problems, involuntary eye movements, confused thinking, and trouble walking.
Following an episode of WE, people may develop Korsakoff syndrome and its ongoing memory problems. Due to the close connection between the two disorders, many clinicians refer to it as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). However, there is no consensus on whether WKS is made up of two distinct disorders, or different aspects of the same condition.
We’ll leave these distinctions to the researchers. What there is agreement on is that WKS is characterized by thought-processing issues and nervous system changes. Failing timely intervention, it can cause irreversible brain damage, and even death.
How to Spot Alcohol Abuse in Seniors
One reason it’s hard to spot alcohol abuse in seniors is that the symptoms of drinking problems closely resemble the challenges of aging. That’s why it’s often hidden or glossed over. “Oh, I know mom has an extra glass of wine these days, but she’s had a lot to cope with lately. Anyway, it’s normal for a person her age to seem a bit confused from time to time.”
On the other hand, please consider this fact: Some experts believe that more than half of senior citizens who’ve received acute hospital care are abusing alcohol. There are also the somewhat cynical outlooks that A) mom or dad won’t be around much longer, or B) that elderly people can’t be successfully treated for alcoholism.
But when you love a parent, you’ll do everything in your power to keep them as safe and healthy as possible, right? Please keep your eyes peeled for these signs of aging that might also indicate a possible alcohol issue:
- Frequent falling
- Depression or anxiety
- Slurred their speech or confusion
- Lack of appetite or potential malnourishment
- Inability to take care of themselves the way they used to
In addition, be on the lookout for clear signs of heavy drinking:
- Drinking more often
- Breath smelling of alcohol
- Drinking when alone
- Becoming irritated when you bring up how much they are drinking
Stop Alcohol-Related Dementia Before it’s too Late
There are some impacts of aging that can’t be helped. But trying to prevent your loved one from developing alcohol-related brain damage – or getting help if it’s already developed – is something that’s within our power to accomplish! What can you do right now to give your loved one the opportunity to live a longer, healthier, more satisfying life?