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Alcohol and dementia

Drinking a lot of alcohol increases your risk of getting dementia and heavy drinking may speed up deterioration in people living with dementia.

Alcohol is the most widely used drug in Australia. People drink alcohol for a range of reasons and in different social and cultural contexts. But heavy and frequent alcohol consumption can cause many chronic health conditions. Drinking a lot of alcohol (i.e. more than 7 drinks a week for women, or more than 14 drinks a week for men) also increases your risk of getting dementia.

As you age, it is important to talk with your GP about your alcohol consumption in case of adverse reactions alcohol may have with your medications. Alcohol may also increase your risk of accidents, falls or fractures. Heavy drinking may speed up deterioration in people living with dementia.

Anyone who engages in heavy or binge drinking regularly, over a long time, can develop alcohol-related dementia. It is most common in men over 45 years but can affect men and women of any age. Alcohol related dementia is caused by nutritional problems which often accompany long-term heavy drinking or binge drinking. Key parts of the brain may suffer damage through vitamin deficiencies, particularly thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B1).

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of alcohol-related dementia are like other forms of dementia. They can vary from person-to-person but generally include:

  • Impaired ability to learn things
  • Personality changes
  • Problems with memory
  • Difficulty with problem solving, particularly for tasks which require planning, organising, common sense judgement and social skills
  • Problems with balance
  • Becoming more socially isolated and withdrawn.

Is moderate alcohol consumption safe for the brain?

It is not possible to say how drinking within recommended guidelines affects the brain. However, adopting a healthy lifestyle throughout your life can help reduce the risk of dementia and other long-term health issues. This includes drinking in moderation but also other factors such as not smoking, engaging in physical exercise and eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Why early diagnosis and treatment is important

If alcohol-related dementia is diagnosed early, symptoms may be improved or reversed if the person stops drinking alcohol and starts replacing thiamine (vitamin B1).

If you’re worried about a friend or family member who is experiencing memory problems, confusion and/or personality changes, encourage them to visit their GP. If they don’t have a GP, help them  find one by searching on Health Direct. Delays in help-seeking can compound issues, delay potential early treatment and therapy, and increase individual and family distress.

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