Decrease Your Loved One’s Risk for Permanent Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Nov 9, 2023

Is he having trouble staying focused, making decisions, controlling his emotions, or remembering the details of your last conversation with him? If he’s a heavy drinker, these could be the early symptoms of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), also known as alcohol-related dementia. ARBD poses a particularly significant risk for men, even those who don’t have an alcohol use disorder.

Decrease Your Loved One's Risk for Permanent Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

(Trevin Rudy/unsplash)

What is ARBD?

Excessive alcohol consumption over time can cause damage to the parts of the brain that control memory and cognition. Severe damage results in dementia-like symptoms, such as memory loss, brain fog, and difficulty carrying out daily tasks.

Alcohol abuse can kill nerve cells, thus shrinking brain tissue and damaging the pathways it uses to communicate with the rest of the body. It can also constrict blood vessels in the brain, which can lead to high blood pressure and stroke. Those who suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) often don’t eat enough healthy foods to give their body the necessary vitamins, especially thiamine (vitamin B1). Thiamine deficiency is linked to an increased incidence of dangerous nervous system issues like seizures, rapid heartbeat, and systemic neuropathy.

According to the British Alzheimer’s Society, roughly one in 10 people with dementia have some form of alcohol-related brain damage. For those who begin experiencing symptoms younger than 65, that number jumps to one in eight.

Two Primary Types of ARBD That Cause Dementia Symptoms

Alcohol-related dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome represent the two primary types of ARBD. The two conditions create similar cognitive deficits, including:

  • Irritability, emotional outbursts
  • Lack of empathy
  • Inability to think things through or solve complex problems
  • Failure to stay on task
  • Lack of motivation to complete essential functions, e.g., eating, drinking, etc.
  • Trouble with making decisions
  • Difficulty learning new skills and retaining information

While both conditions stem from alcohol abuse, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome does so indirectly. WKS is a disease caused by a severe thiamine deficiency. The Cleveland Clinic reports that roughly 80% of people who struggle with alcohol abuse also don’t have enough thiamine. This is because chronic alcohol use aggravates the stomach and digestive tract and interferes with thiamine absorption.

Wernicke-Korsakoff is a two-stage disease, the first being Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. Symptoms differ in severity, from confusion and memory loss to uncontrollable eye movements, loss of balance, and hypothermia. At this point, it’s critical to talk with your doctor or an alcohol detox facility right away. Otherwise, the disease can quickly progress to the second stage, Korsakoff’s Syndrome, leading to amnesia, psychosis, loss of consciousness, or death.

When doctors are able to treat alcohol-related dementia early, many of the symptoms, including memory loss, can be mitigated or reversed. However, the prognosis is not as good if the disease advances to Wernicke-Korsakoff’s. The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that only a quarter of those with WSK who get treatment will recover well, underscoring the need for immediate intervention.

ARBD treatment relies first and foremost on alcohol detoxification and large infusions of thiamine. Additional IV fluids may also be necessary in cases of alcohol dehydration. Once the body’s systems are stable, the next step is to enlist the help of local addiction resources such as Alcoholics Anonymous or an accredited substance abuse recovery center.

Tips for Supporting Loved Ones with ARBD

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless when a loved one is struggling with addiction and dementia symptoms. You are not alone. Here are a few things you can do not only to aid your loved one but also to stay emotionally resilient during this challenging experience:

  1. Get help from organizations like Al-Anon, alcohol rehab family support groups, or a private family therapist. Meet with your ecclesiastical leader and see what substance abuse programs your church may have to offer. Talk regularly with close friends and extended family members for morale boosts and encouragement. You can only assist your loved one if you’re getting the emotional support you need first.
  2. Practice executive function skills with your loved one, such as planning meals, breaking down school or work assignments into manageable pieces, keeping a journal, and maintaining a daily routine.
  3. Exercise and eat healthy foods together. It’s incredibly challenging for a person to change their lifestyle habits on their own. Your loved one needs a buddy (or buddies) who will help him do the things that will make him healthier and happier, restore his neurological function, and help him stay sober. Working closely with his doctor and addiction recovery team on this step is a good idea. You all need to be on the same page.
  4. Be patient with your loved one and yourself. Give them some grace when they stumble, relapse, or become discouraged. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes or struggle with missed expectations. This is a tough road you both are walking.

If you feel like your loved one’s drinking is affecting his neurological functions, get help now. As stated above, in some cases, ARBD can be slowed, stopped, and even reversed with immediate treatment. Our expert staff here at Renaissance Ranch can help him withdraw safely from alcohol and put him on the road to recovery. Call 855-736-7262 or click here to get in touch with us.