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Alcohol-Induced Dementia And Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Alcohol is linked to the development of two types of dementia: alcohol-induced dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. There is disagreement as to whether these diseases are separate conditions or whether they are the same condition with changed names. This article will examine both diseases, their symptoms and warning signs, and possible treatments.

Alcohol-Induced Dementia

Alcohol use can be a risk factor in developing any type of dementia. A recent report from the BBC showed that even moderate alcohol consumption placed people at greater risk for developing dementia.

Alcohol-induced dementia is a specific type of dementia caused by alcohol abuse over a period of years. Symptoms include:

  • Memory problems

  • Language impairment

  • Inability to perform complex motor tasks, like getting dressed

Alcohol-induced dementia cannot be diagnosed while a patient is in withdrawal, or experiencing medical complications from their alcohol abuse. A patient must be sober and still experiencing symptoms to be diagnosed with alcohol-induced dementia.

The effect of alcohol abuse on the body can produce several additional psychological and physical signs, detected by doctors or family members and often including:

  • Apathy

  • Irritability

  • Resistive behavior

  • Problems with sensations in extremities

  • Trouble with balance

These conditions are commonly experienced by those with alcohol-induced dementia.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is the combination of two conditions with separate stages: Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.

Wernicke's encephalopathy: Caused by damaged parts of the brain due to a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine), alcoholics are prone to developing this condition because they usually have poor nutrition, and a decreased ability to properly absorb nutrients. This condition has also been observed in people who lacked diets with thiamine, but were not alcoholics.

Symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Vision changes (back and forth eye movements, double vision, eyelid drooping)

Korsakoff syndrome: Also referred to as Korsakoff psychosis, Korsakoff syndrome tends to develop after Wernicke's symptoms go away. This syndrome is a result of damage to the parts of the brain associated with memory. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty forming new memories
  • Mild to severe loss of memory
  • Making up stories (confabulation)
  • Hallucinations

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may also be present during either of these stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Treatment: Difficult, But Not Impossible

Unfortunately, doctors and researchers have found that much of the damage wrought by alcohol abuse is permanent; making it very difficult to treat alcohol-induced dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. People with alcohol-related dementias improve their quality of life at half the rate of those with Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.

Experts recommend abstaining from alcohol as a large part of treating these conditions. A second, equally important component, is maintaining a healthy, balanced, nutritional diet to slow the progression of alcohol related dementias. Alcoholics Anonymous and other similar support groups can help those changing the role of alcohol in their lives.

If you have any concerns about you or your loved one's alcohol use and change in behavior, please contact your doctor or a treatment specialist. 


Dementia is a decline of mental abilities such as thinking, reasoning, and memory. Dementia usually occurs in older age; it is rare under the age of 60. It is serious enough to diminish everday life.