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Can Alcohol Cause Early-Onset Dementia?
April 9, 2021

Can Alcohol Cause Early-Onset Dementia?

It’s no secret that binging on alcohol makes people behave irrationally. And the brain impairment doesn’t necessarily clear upon sobering up. Among other health problems, alcohol plays a major role in causing early-onset dementia.

What Dementia Is

Dementia—deterioration in brain function that manifests in noticeable impairment—is typically associated with senior adults and Alzheimer’s disease, but has been diagnosed in 45-year-olds and even people under 30. A case that develops before age 65 is called early-onset dementia, because that age range is considered atypically young.

Common Symptoms of Dementia

  • Memory loss: being unable to recall what happened moments before, forgetting to do routine tasks
  • Repetitive or obsessive-compulsive behavior
  • Noticeable decrease in ability to learn and problem-solve
  • Struggling to concentrate or put things into words
  • Increased difficulty connecting emotionally with others
  • Personality changes, often characterized by anxiety and paranoid thoughts

What Alcohol Has to Do with It

The connection between long-term heavy drinking and dementia is well known: alcoholic dementia is even recognized as a subcategory. Regarding the early-onset version of dementia, The Lancet Public Healthrecently reported that heavy alcohol use is not only a major risk factor, but probably thenumber one modifiable risk factor: 60 percent of research subjects with early-onset dementia also had alcohol-related health issues.

Alcohol hurts the brain in various ways: damaging nerve ends, impairing neurotransmitters, causing tissues to contract and shrivel. Alcoholism is also frequently associated with thiamine deficiency, a shortage of the vitamin that energizes nerve and brain cells. If the deficiency is chronic, function may be permanently impaired.

Besides memory and cognitive symptoms, people with alcoholic dementia are likely to suffer from:

  • Low blood pressure and body temperature
  • Rapid pulse rate
  • Eye tics
  • Poor physical coordination
  • Muscle atrophy

Often there is also a diagnosis of alcohol-related brain damage, which typically strikes before age 55. (ARBD is a separate condition from dementia itself.)

Starting Young

In the United States, people under 21 are legally barred from drinking alcohol (with the exception, in many states, of drinks served by parents at home); but more than half of college students do it nonetheless. So do 30 percent of high school students.

Alcohol carries special risks for people under 25 because their brains have not yet reached full maturity, are vulnerable to impaired development, and are less able to consider risks—including the risks of irresponsible drinking. Every month, about one in three college students engage in binge drinking, and more than 150 suffer fatal alcohol-related injuries. Alcoholic dementia, a more distant threat, is rarely considered at that age—but developing the drinking habit early means that young people also begin accumulating damage early. A common reason for underage drinking is “feeling grown up,” but this may become the first step toward growing prematurely old.

What to Do

If anyone who has had a drinking problem develops possible dementia symptoms, it’s a good idea to get a medical evaluation regardless of the person’s age or how long they’ve been sober. Professional treatment is needed to minimize adverse effects and mitigate damage.

Other ways to improve brain health when recovering from alcoholism (with or without a dementia diagnosis):

  • Engage in mind-sharpening leisure activities such as crossword puzzles.
  • Keep up healthy, interactive relationships with other people.
  • Eat a nutritious diet. (Ask your doctor if you need supplements to compensate for thiamine or other deficiencies.)
  • Get plenty of sleep and exercise.
  • Cultivate a grateful, positive attitude. Don’t let fear of someday developing early-onset dementia (or other addiction-related health problems) bully you into thinking yourself sick today!

April Is Alcohol Awareness Month

One in three Americans have drinking-related problems at some point in life; yet the addictive-drug dangers remain frequently ignored and overlooked. Being legal and freely available doesn’t make alcohol safe to drink indiscriminately. For many people, it’s unsafe to drink at all.

If you suspect you have alcoholism, or want to help someone who does, contact Beach House and ask about our alcohol detox program. We provide customized care to guide every client in finding freedom from chemical dependence and building a bright future.

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