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Can Alcoholism Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s Linked To Alcohol Use

Recent studies have prompted concern about the frightening link between Alzheimer’s disease and drinking too much alcohol, bringing many to ask: Can alcoholism cause Alzheimer’s?  Alcohol abuse has already shown to be a risk factor in developing a number of chronic diseases like heart disease and stroke. Over the last twenty years, researchers have been also been looking to determine if alcohol abuse may be a factor that triggers dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  Both of these diseases result in increasingly severe cognitive impairment and memory loss, to the point where the patient is no longer able to take care of themselves.  Both anecdotal experience in clinics and a recent clinical review (a study of other studies) have shown that there is certainly evidence that alcohol may have a causative or accelerating factor in those already susceptible to dementia or Alzheimer’s (source).    

 The severity of these diseases and their rising prevalence in America has led to a rush of research in not only treatment, but in prevention, including understanding risk factors for developing the disease (source). The results have been somewhat contradictory (source)— you may have read that drinking a small amount every week may actually have a protective effect on cognition. One problem with that study is that a “moderate” amount is one 4-oz drink per day for women or two drinks a day for men. This amount differs significantly from what is regularly consumed by many Americans, let alone the amount ingested by full-blown alcoholics. Therefore, that study is not an endorsement of alcohol as a healthy beverage (source).  Indeed, enough other studies have emerged that show an association between alcohol abuse and damage to the body that we can definitively conclude that alcohol use does not prevent any chronic diseases.  Does excessive alcohol use on its own simply cause Alzheimer’s?  As we will see below, the factors involved are complicated, so researchers can’t exactly say “yes” yet. On the other hand, there is enough evidence that families struggling with either a history of Alzheimer’s and/or alcohol abuse should pay attention to the research coming out.

Alzheimer’s and Co-Occurring Disorders

When trying to identify a concrete link between alcoholism and Alzheimer’s, researchers have run into several problems with overlapping (or co-occurring) disorders. First of all, alcohol abuse is often associated with depression and other psychiatric disorders—a common form of “self-medication”.  Recent studies have also linked people with a history of major depression to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. In other words, people with depression or other psychiatric problems are more likely to both drink and develop Alzheimer’s (source). So which comes first? All of these factors together make it complicated to make a direct connection between drinking itself and Alzheimer’s.

To complicate things further, both Alzheimer’s and substance abuse disorders may also have genetic components. Because there are so many co-occurring factors, researchers continue to run a variety of studies attempting to make a definitive connection. Due to the connection between all of these co-occurring factors, however, scientists have posited that a concrete connection between excessive drinking and Alzheimer’s is likely to be proven eventually (source). Furthermore, alcohol use is known to cause brain damage and exacerbates depression. Families with a history of either disease should try to limit or abstain from drinking, and should get help if alcohol abuse is already a problem.

Alcohol Use and Brain Damage

One thing that scientists do know is that excessive drinking causes brain damage.  There’s even a term for it: alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD).  Excessive alcohol use over a long period of time damages the body’s nerve system, because the byproducts of alcohol metabolism produce toxic, reactive molecules like formaldehyde (source). Chronic exposure to these compounds eventually leads to shrinkage of nerve and brain tissue. Another problem that alcoholics tend to have is poor nutrition, with an especially large risk of vitamin deficiency, including the crucial vitamin thiamine, otherwise known as vitamin B1. When thiamine deficiency becomes severe enough, alcoholics may begin to experience characteristic symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis. Sufferers of Korsakoff’s psychosis will experience vision changes including hallucinations, poor memory, including false memories, and severe trouble balancing called ataxia (source). By the time these symptoms are showing, sufferers of Korsakoff’s psychosis are usually suffering severe atrophy in crucial areas of the brain, which can eventually lead to coma and death.

Alcohol Treatment: It’s Never Too Late 

Although evidence linking Alzheimer’s and alcoholism has yet to be definitively proven, we do know that long-term alcoholism can cause profound damage to both the body and the brain. There is enough evidence that families with a history of Alzheimer’s or dementia should be extra-careful with alcohol use. If alcoholism is already a problem, remember that stopping and getting treatment can still prolong life and preserve mental capacity, even if done later in life (source)!  Giving up drinking after decades can be a challenging prospect, but it’s certainly possible. Remember that daily (maintenance) drinkers should go to detox instead of quitting “cold turkey” to avoid potentially fatal side effects from withdrawal (source).  After detox, recovery and abstinence from drinking are much more likely to succeed with professional treatment. These days, substance abuse recovery professionals can even take advanced age into consideration when designing treatment plans. Don’t make one substance abuse problem put you or a loved one at risk of other serious physical illnesses—it’s never too late to ask for help!

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