Alcohol-Induced Dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes enjoy a scotch with dinner. As I was growing up, I never thought of my dad as an alcoholic, and I didn’t see any major issues. But after my mom died, he took a turn for the worse. I would come over to visit or just check in. No matter what time of day it was, he was always sitting in the chair in his living room, watching TV and drinking alcohol. About six months after my mom died, I started to notice some issues with his memory. At first I thought maybe he was just getting old, but then I realized it could be alcohol-induced dementia. Alcohol-induced dementia can mean a few different things. While alcohol-induced dementia can refer to brain damage resulting from the deterioration of brain cells caused by severe, long-term drinking, it most commonly refers to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) or “wet brain .” Although WSK can be caused by different health issues, it is common among people who struggle with alcohol addiction. While excessive drinking does not necessarily indicate an alcohol use disorder, more people in Massachusetts binge drink than the national average, with 21% of adults reporting binge drinking behavior in 2020. WSK is the result of brain and nerve damage from years of vitamin deficiency. It can lead to learning disabilities and severe memory problems. Alcohol-induced dementia can also cause other cognitive issues like poor judgment and confusion. Alcohol-induced dementia is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition that needs immediate treatment. Alcohol-induced dementia often looks very similar to Alzheimer’s disease. The two disorders appear similar in terms of memory and increasing cognitive problems. While Alzheimer’s almost exclusively results in permanent damage, WKS has more mixed results when it comes to reversing symptoms.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)
When I started to worry that my dad might have alcohol-induced dementia, I started doing some research. One of the first things that came up was Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. I knew that when my mom was alive, she did most of the cooking and meal planning. Right after she died, there were a lot of people sending casseroles, but that ended quickly. I tried to take care of my dad, but I had gotten caught up in my own busy life. I quickly started to realize that my dad might have a serious thiamine deficiency. While brain damage from alcohol use does directly impact alcohol-induced dementia, WKS is actually caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1). People suffering from long-term alcohol use disorder often also have a very poor diet and don’t get appropriate nutrients, which leads to many nutritional problems, including a lack of vitamin B1. The nervous system needs vitamin B1 in order to function properly. When a person experiences a long-term, severe lack of vitamin B1, the nervous system can no longer work properly, leading to symptoms similar to dementia. The damage done by this vitamin B1 deficiency may be permanent but can see moderate improvement depending on a number of factors. WKS is actually two different syndromes, both caused by a thiamine deficiency, occurring at the same time. The two independently are known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is usually the first stage and results in damage to multiple parts of the brain. This can be deadly if not treated quickly. Korsakoff’s psychosis follows Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This is when difficulties with memory, other cognitive abilities, and nervous system damage begin to set in.
Causes of Alcohol-Induced Dementia
The next time I went to visit my dad, I investigated his kitchen to find out what he was eating. I found that it was pretty bare. It seemed like he was eating a lot of frozen dinners and junk food. I found a lot of potato chips and other foods that would be easy for him to eat, but I found very little that had any actual nutritional value to speak of. There were no fresh fruits or vegetables that I could find. I doubted that he’d had any substantial amount of vitamin B1 in months. Some symptoms of alcohol-induced dementia are caused by the damage alcohol does to brain cells, which results in worsening brain function. However, WSK is a result of a vitamin deficiency. Thiamine deficiency is the primary cause of WSK. However, a thiamine deficiency is extremely common among people with long-term alcohol use disorder due to poor diet and nutritional deficiencies. While the damage done to brain cells by long-term alcohol use certainly contributes to cognitive problems, brain damage due to alcohol is not the primary cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. A thiamine deficiency is very common among people with alcohol use disorder, but it may also appear due to other issues. It sometimes occurs in cancer patients, AIDs patients, people who have undergone bariatric surgery, people struggling with anorexia, or other people participating in an extreme diet.
Symptoms of Alcohol-Induced Dementia
I started paying closer attention to his behavior, just to see if he had any of the more serious symptoms. I quickly realized that he didn’t just spend so much time in that chair because he was being lazy. It was because he was having a lot of trouble standing due to leg tremors, and he couldn’t walk very well. I asked him about his eyesight. He admitted that it was getting a lot harder for him to see the TV, but he said he was just getting old. I would ask him questions about what he had been doing recently, and he would give me vague non-answers. I quickly realized that was probably because he couldn’t remember. Early on, the most common symptom of alcohol-induced dementia is obvious confusion. They may also begin by struggling with short-term memory loss early on in the condition. However, different syndromes associated with alcohol-induced dementia have different symptoms. Symptoms of alcohol-induced dementia primarily from damage done by alcohol include:
- Impulsive behavior
- Difficulty planning ahead
- Problems with decision-making
- Repeating the same thing over and over
- Difficulty handling emotions
Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy typically include:
- Droopy eyelids
- Worsening muscle coordination
- Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
- Back and forth motion of the eyes
- Leg tremors
- Worsening vision
- Staggering or an inability to walk straight
- Balance problems
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a serious health condition that can lead to coma or death if left untreated. If you suspect someone in your life is suffering from Wernicke’s encephalopathy, get them medical attention immediately. Symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis can include:
- Loss of memories a person previously had
- An inability to form new memories
- Making up stories that are untrue
- Hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not real)
Korsakoff’s psychosis is a serious, chronic, and crippling disorder. It often, although not always, follows Wernicke’s encephalopathy.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Diagnosis and Prognosis
I decided it was definitely time to get medical help, so I set up an appointment and took my dad to the hospital. When we were there, they tested his reflexes, coordination, eyes, and heart to determine what was wrong. After doing some tests, they decided that he was in fact suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. They said the fact that I had gotten him help as soon as I noticed the symptoms could end up making the syndrome much more manageable. In order to diagnose Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, medical professionals may look for things like:
- Increased heart rate
- Abnormal eye movement
- Poor reflexes
- Low blood pressure
- Low body temperature
- Problems walking
- Issues with coordination
Medical professionals are also likely to order blood tests to check vitamin B1 levels as well as tests for liver enzymes. Once someone receives a WKS diagnosis and begins treatment, results vary depending on a number of different factors. The body’s ability to recover from WKS typically depends on the severity of the illness, how long the illness went untreated, and how well an individual responds to treatment. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that about 25% of people will respond well to treatment and make a full recovery. About half of all people who receive treatment for WKS will make some recovery but will not recover all of their faculties to the quality they were before their illness. About 25% of patients who receive treatment will not show any significant improvements in their condition. It can take weeks or even months before there are any signs that treatment is having an impact. Most people who recover from WKS receive treatment and begin to show significant improvement within the first two years after the onset of symptoms. The longer the disease goes untreated, the less likely someone is to recover from it.
Treatment For Alcohol-Induced Dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
The doctors started my dad immediately on a high dose of intravenous thiamine. The doctors said to get the most out of treatment, he needed to make some serious changes to his lifestyle, like diet and exercise. They also said he needed to stop drinking. I knew he couldn’t do that on his own. The first step to ending alcohol-induced dementia is to stop drinking. Severe drinking and alcohol use disorder diminish a person’s ability to care for themselves. Someone who begins to receive treatment but does not stop drinking is not going to benefit from treatment. However, alcohol withdrawal for someone who has a chemical dependency is dangerous and can lead to severe permanent health problems and even death. Alcohol detox should only be done under the supervision of a qualified, experienced professional. WKS is typically treated with high doses of intravenous thiamine. People who suffer from WKS due to alcohol use disorder often require higher doses of thiamine than people who developed the syndrome as a result of other issues. For someone who is recovering from WKS, it is also important that they improve their physical health. An appropriate diet, vitamin regimen, and exercise are all important to a quality recovery.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at Swift River – Massachusetts
In addition to the medical treatment for WKS, I got my dad the help he needed to stop drinking alcohol. Rehab helped him take control back. With rehab and treatment, my dad was able to stop drinking and start healing. Swift River offers quality rehab for alcoholism. Here at Swift River, treatment for alcohol use disorder begins with detox. Detoxing from alcohol can be a dangerous or even deadly process if done improperly. That is why we have physician-supervised staff available 24/7 to ensure our clients detox safely. We also offer medically assisted detox, which is when our staff uses closely monitored medication to reduce the pain associated with alcohol detox. This helps stabilize clients and prepare them for further recovery. Depending on the severity of the addiction, we offer different levels of care, including inpatient and sober-living options. While treatment differs slightly depending on the client, our alcohol use disorder treatment includes a combination of the following:
- Individual behavioral counseling
- Evidence-based treatment methods
- Support groups
- Educational and skill-learning groups
- Aftercare support planning
- Co-occurring disorder (mental health) treatment as needed
Get Help at Swift River – Massachusetts Today
If you or a loved one is suffering from WKS, you should seek medical treatment immediately. If you or someone you know is suffering from an alcohol use disorder, you deserve to get treatment at a top-quality facility. Call Swift River at (844) 906-0978.