Is His Memory Loss Due to Alcohol or Dementia?

Ten minutes ago, he asked me how things were going at my new job. Now he’s asking again. These “loop” conversations seem to be happening a lot lately. But after 20 years of drinking, is Dad’s memory loss caused by the alcohol, or is this the onset of dementia?

 I’m not sure what to think…or what to do to help him.

The truth is, this dad’s memory loss is probably due to both drinking and dementia. It’s a condition referred to as alcohol-related dementia and is a type of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD).

 

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Alcohol and Dementia: The Science-Side of Things

We know from research that heavy drinking can triple the risk of dementia. And alcoholism can also increase the risk of cardiovascular issues, which further boosts the risk of dementia. One study discovered that a whopping 78 percent of people who have been diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder also have some type of dementia or brain abnormality.

We also know there are many different kinds of dementia. And not all are related to or caused by alcohol abuse. So…how can you know if your loved one’s memory loss is caused by alcohol-related dementia?

Signs and Symptoms to Look For

Common symptoms of alcohol-related dementia include:

  • Trouble staying focused/easily distracted
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Difficulty making decisions and setting goals
  • Changes in personality
  • Word-finding difficulties
  • Problem-solving, planning and organization issues
  • Lack of motivation to do daily tasks
  • Behavior that seems insensitive or uncaring

Of course, every person is different, and symptoms of alcohol-related dementia can vary. But if you notice several of these changes or behaviors in someone with a long-term drinking problem, alcohol-related dementia might be the cause.

Helping a Loved One With Alcohol-Related Dementia

If your loved one seems to be suffering from alcohol-related dementia, the best thing they can do is stop drinking alcohol.

The good news is, unlike Alzheimer’s or some types of dementia, alcohol-related dementia is not guaranteed to worsen over time. In fact, it can even improve. In some cases, if the person stops drinking, eats a balanced diet, and receives doses of thiamine, their condition may improve. (Thiamine deficiency is a common cause of certain types of dementia.)

On the flip side, alcohol-related dementia is likely to worsen if the person continues drinking alcohol.

It’s also important to involve a professional who is familiar with this condition. A doctor can complete an evaluation of your loved one to assess his memory. (But the doctor may require the patient to be sober for a certain period of time before the assessment.) In any case, assistance from a professional who knows how to support people with alcohol-related dementia is important.

A doctor may also want to do a brain scan. This may reveal that certain parts of the brain have been diminished by alcohol abuse. (Typically, alcohol affects the frontal lobes in particular.) It can also help rule out other causes of the memory loss, such as a stroke.

 

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Providing the Support They Need

Sobriety is the top priority. Professional medical support also ranks high. Besides help with diagnosis, doctors can help manage any health-related issues caused by drinking. They can also supervise detox and ease withdrawal symptoms if your loved one chooses to stop drinking.

The main thing to remember is that your loved one will need help to get better. They will need to work with a health professional to rehabilitate. This involves more than simply saying no to alcohol. It may also mean learning to use memory aids, learning new technology, or changing their diet.

Rehabilitation services are often available through a community mental health program, a dementia service, or a brain injury rehab team.

Other supports that can be helpful include:

  • Therapy: Counselors can help your loved one develop coping skills and manage their emotions.
  • Family counseling: Support from loved ones can make a huge difference, and family members can benefit from counseling, too.
  • AA: Alcoholics Anonymous offers support groups that may help your loved one cope with their struggles and stay sober.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? today to speak with a treatment specialist.

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