Can Alcohol Use Cause Dementia?

Last Updated : 09/15/20183 min read

While evidence of alcohol’s negative impact on cognitive function remains clear, the medical and research community remains divided over whether excessive alcohol use may lead to the development of dementia.

Alcohol use and dementia

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use may, over time, lead to cognitive issues that affect learning and memory, including dementia.

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The CDC defines “excessive” alcohol use as:

  • Drinking eight or more drinks per week (for women)
  • Drinking 15 or more drinks per week (for men)
  • Binge drinking four or more drinks at one time (for women), or five or more drinks at one time (for men)

The Alzheimer’s Association (ALS) defines dementia as a “general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life” and includes Korsakoff syndrome as a form of dementia. Korsakoff syndome is a type of dementia caused by a thiamine deficiency that most often develops as a result of alcohol abuse. However, a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) argues that while it’s clear that alcohol use may lead to permanent brain damage, it’s unclear exactly what effect alcohol has on thiamine deficiency and the development of Korsakoff syndrome or other types of dementia.

However, according to a different NIH study, there remains a lack of evidence that alcohol use is associated with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia). The study does note that alcohol use is a possible risk factor Alzheimer’s, and excessive alcohol consumption often leads to negative effects on the brain and neurological functioning that mimic the signs of decline found in both healthy older adults and dementia patients. For example, heavy drinking accelerates atrophy of the brain. In addition, both alcohol use and dementia have an impact on the body’s cholinergic system, which affects neurotransmitters involved in memory function. However, the NIH study is careful to note that possible links between alcohol use and dementia remain inconclusive.

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Alcohol use and senior health

Even if researchers may disagree over the relationship between alcohol use and dementia, the harmful effects of excessive alcohol use are well documented. According to the CDC, excessive alcohol use may lead to a host of health issues, including alcohol poisoning, cancer, heart disease, and increased risk for depression or anxiety.

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