Dementia And Alcohol

What is dementia?

​​Dementia is a general word used to describe a decline in memory and other executive functions that is so severe that it affects a person's ability to carry out daily tasks. There are already 47 million dementia sufferers worldwide, and by 2050, that figure is projected to triple.1 It is the fifth leading cause of death in the world.2 The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease and this is said to account for 70 percent of dementia cases.3 Other common causes of dementia include frontotemporal dementia (FTD), vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia (DLB), Parkinson’s disease (PDD) and Huntington’s disease. Dementia occurs in some people as we age and this is usually around 65 years of age or older.4 An early diagnosis is beneficial. If you believe that you have symptoms of dementia, it is important to see a doctor so you can receive the correct treatment.

Symptoms of dementia

The symptoms of dementia may vary among individuals which can include:

  • Memory loss
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty with gait or balance
  • Struggling with communication and conversations
  • person's ability to carry out daily tasks

However, the symptoms of dementia can also vary depending on the type of dementia. For example, if you have alcohol related dementia your symptoms may include:

  • difficulty staying focused on a task without becoming distracted
  • Deterioration of problem-solving, planning and organising skills
  • Difficulty in setting goals, making judgements and making decisions
  • Lack of motivation to do tasks or activities such as eating, drinking and socialising
  • Change in personality - They might have trouble understanding peoples’ thoughts and feelings and display inappropriate behaviour
  • Trouble controlling their emotions – they may have outbursts or become irritable

Frequent alcohol intake increases the risk of dementia

As the name implies, alcohol-related dementia is a type of dementia linked to excessive drinking. According to studies, people who drink heavily or binge (which is when they consume a lot of alcohol quickly) are more likely to get Alzheimer's or another type of dementia than people who drink moderately.5-6 This is due to the damage that years of excessive alcohol consumption can do to their brains. The symptoms of alcohol-related dementia can vary from person to person. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome sometimes referred to as wet brain, is another type of alcohol related dementia that is characterised by short-term memory loss and thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency.

About 10% of cases of young onset dementia are caused by alcohol-related brain damage, which tends to be more prevalent in persons in their 40s and 50s.5 Due to hormonal changes, differences in body fat composition, and differences in height to weight ratios, middle-aged women are more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol.5

Alcohol can worsen symptoms of dementia

Alcohol inhibits neuronal activity in the brain

Promotes the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters which can worsen dementia symptoms

Alcohol is thought to mimic the effects of GABA by attaching to GABA receptors and preventing neuronal signaling in the brain. Alcohol releases other inhibitors such as dopamine and serotonin,7 which are  involved in cognitive functions such as memory formation and learning.  Alcohol “depresses” or “suppresses” the function of neurons, which has an effect on the central nervous system by reducing the ability of neurons to transmit or "fire" electrical impulses.The information carried by these electrical impulses is crucial for maintaining healthy brain function.7

Alcohol promotes dendrite damage

Affects communication between neurons

Persistent alcohol misuse and binge drinking do not result in brain cells actually dying. Instead, alcohol impairs neural transmission and harms the dendrites in the cerebellum. 8Researchers found that drinking alcohol can change the structure of neurons in addition to interfering with their ability to communicate 8 but it does not kill off cells.

If you’re worried about your or your loved one’s alcohol intake

A good first step is to visit a doctor if you have concerns about your drinking. In addition, there are also many charities and helplines to contact if you are concerned about you’re drinking.


People who drink heavily or binge are more likely to get Alzheimer's or another type of dementia. Alcohol consumption in moderation hasn't been definitively connected to an increased risk of dementia, nor has it been demonstrated to provide much protection from getting dementia. An excellent first step is to visit a GP if you have concerns about your drinking or the drinking of someone else. They can talk about the various services and therapies. There are also several helplines which are available to talk to.


  1. Arvanitakis Z, Shah RC, Bennett DA. Diagnosis and Management of Dementia: Review. JAMA [Internet]. 2019 Oct 22 [cited 2022 Sep 23];322(16):1589. Available from:
  2. ‌Emmady PD, Prasanna Tadi. Dementia [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing; 2022 [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from:
  3. Reitz C, Mayeux R. Alzheimer disease: Epidemiology, diagnostic criteria, risk factors and biomarkers. Biochemical Pharmacology [Internet]. 2014 Apr [cited 2022 Sep 23];88(4):640–51. Available from:
  4. Alzheimer's Disease International, Albanese E, Maëlenn Guerchet, Prince M, Prina M. World Alzheimer Report 2014: Dementia and risk reduction: An analysis of protective and modifiable risk factors [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from:
  5. ‌Alcohol related brain damage [Internet]. Dementia UK. 2022 [cited 2022 Sep 26]. Available from:
  6. ‌Overview | Dementia, disability and frailty in later life – mid-life approaches to delay or prevent onset | Guidance | NICE [Internet]. NICE; 2015 [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from:
  7. Content: Alcohol Disrupts the Communication Between Neurons – The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from:
  8. Zhou FC, Anthony B, Dunn KW, Lindquist WB, Xu ZC, Deng P. Chronic alcohol drinking alters neuronal dendritic spines in the brain reward center nucleus accumbens. Brain Research [Internet]. 2007 Feb [cited 2022 Sep 28];1134:148–61. Available from:

Dechante Johnson

BSc Neuroscience, University of Exeter, England

Dechante is a 3rd year neuroscience student at the University of Exeter. She has recently carried out research at the University of Western Ontario, Canada where she investigated the "Sensory filtering in Autisic Models". Dechante's main interests are clinical neuroscience, behavioural sciences, health policy and understanding the inequities in healthcare. She is particularly interested in using interdisciplinary biomedical research to answer complex questions and global problems in medicine and health. Dechante is passionate about medical communications and believes that patients should be fully aware of the options available to them and give the public complex information about health into simplistic terms. presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
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