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Alcohol Dementia

Memory, Learning and Other Cognitive Skills

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Updated April 11, 2014

Excessive drinking over a period of years may lead to a condition known as Alcohol Dementia, which can cause problems with memory, learning and other cognitive skills.

Alcohol has a direct effect on brain cells, resulting in poor judgment, difficulty making decisions and lack of insight. Nutrition problems which often accompany long-time alcohol abuse can be another contributing factor, since parts of the brain may be damaged by vitamin deficiencies.

Those suffering from dementia, may have very little ability to learn new things, while many of their other mental abilities are still highly functioning. Along with the decline in cognitive skills, sometimes noticeable personality changes take place.

Tell-Tell Signs

Confusion may be the most obvious symptom of dementia, but this confusion is also accompanied by obvious memory problems. Those suffering from dementia may remember in great detail events that happened years ago, but are not able to recall events that took place in the past few minutes.

Another symptom is telling the same stories or asking the same questions over and over, with no recollection that the questions have just been asked and answered. In conversation they may repeat the same piece of information 20 times, remaining wholly unaware that they are repeating the same thing in absolutely stereotyped expression.

Remarkably, at the same time they can seem to be in complete possession of their faculties -- able to reason well, drawing correct deductions, makes witty remarks, or playing games that require mental skills, such as chess or cards.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Alcohol Dementia is also sometimes known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is really two disorders that may occur independently or together.

Wernicke's disease involves damage to multiple nerves in both the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (the rest of the body). It may also include symptoms caused by alcohol withdrawal. The cause is generally attributed to malnutrition, especially lack of vitamin B-1 (thiamine), which commonly accompanies habitual alcohol use or alcoholism.

Korsakoff syndrome, or Korsakoff psychosis, involves impairment of memory and intellect/cognitive skills such as problem solving or learning, along with multiple symptoms of nerve damage. The most distinguishing symptom is confabulation (fabrication) where the person makes up detailed, believable stories about experiences or situations to cover the gaps in the memory. Korsakoff psychosis involves damage to areas of the brain.

Warning Signs

This list of warning signs of possible dementia are published on the Alzheimer's Outreach web site:

    Personality changes
    • Frustration, Anger, and Irritability
    • Emotional Lability, Unstable moods
    • Paranoia, Suspicion, and Jealously
    • Insensitivity to Others
    • Flat Emotional Responses
    • Loss of Inhibitions
    • Fear of Being Alone
    Loss of problem-solving skills
    • Inability to do Familiar Tasks
    • Inability to Make Connections
    • Inability to Make Decisions
    • Inability to Initiate or Complete a Project
    Communication problems
    • Problems Finding Words
    • Inability to Follow a Conversation
    • Repeating the Question
    Disorientation
    • Loss of a Sense of Time
    • Getting Lost in Familiar Areas
    • Not Recognizing People
    New and unfamiliar behaviors
    • Neglect of Self or Property
    • Hoarding
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