What is Dementia?Contrary to what most people think, dementia isn’t a disease. Rather, dementia is a collective term used to describe a range of symptoms linked to specific types of cognitive decline. Generally, dementia refers to memory loss, diminished reasoning, and weakened problem-solving skills. Dementia can also affect your communication and language skills, visual perception, and attention span. Most people receive a dementia diagnosis around 60 to 65 years old, but dementia is not a normal part of the aging process. Occasionally misplacing your car keys, forgetting an acquaintance’s name, and struggling to remember a word but remembering it later are normal age-related memory changes. When you have dementia, however, you’ll begin to forget the knowledge, experiences, and memories you’ve gathered over the years. You might also have trouble communicating with others. These kinds of memory challenges happen when brain cells incur damage and die, which is not a part of the normal aging process.
Types of DementiaDementia is most commonly associated with neurodegenerative disorders, diseases that happen when nerve cells in the brain lose function. There is no cure for dementia. As the affected brain cells continue to lose their functionality, grow weaker, and eventually die, dementia becomes progressively worse over time. There are many different types of dementia, but the most common types include:
- Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for approximately 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. One of the early signs of Alzheimer’s is trouble remembering recent events. People with Alzheimer’s disease might have trouble remembering a conversation they had a few minutes or hours ago. As the disease progresses, everyday tasks like walking and talking can become difficult.
- Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia. Vascular dementia happens when there isn’t enough blood supply to the brain. About 10 percent of these dementia cases are linked to strokes or other issues with blood flow to the brain. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol can also be risk factors.
- Lewy body dementia makes up about 10 percent of dementia cases. In addition to typical dementia symptoms like memory loss, people with this form of dementia have movement and balance problems like stiffness or trembling. Lewy body dementia can make it difficult to sleep well and some people with the disorder experience visual hallucinations.
- Mixed dementia occurs when people have more than one type of dementia.
- Frontotemporal dementia is a less common form of dementia that happens when nerve cells in the frontal or temporal lobe of the brain die. The pathways that connect the lobes change, which can cause apathy, personality changes, mood swings, lack of social tact, and compulsive behavior.
Symptoms of DementiaDementia symptoms can vary widely depending on the type and progression of the disorder, but common signs that may indicate dementia include:
- Getting lost in a familiar neighborhood
- Using unusual words to refer to familiar objects
- Forgetting the name of a close family member or friend
- Forgetting old memories
- Not being able to complete tasks independently
- Changes in mood, including depression, commonly associated with early dementia
- Apathy, or a loss of interest in hobbies, activities, or spending time with family and friends
- Difficulty following storylines in television shows, movies, or even conversations
- Being repetitive, including repeating daily tasks, collecting items obsessively, or repeating questions
- Struggling to adapt to change. Not remembering where you are or getting lost on the way home can be terrifying. As a result, people with dementia may crave routine and fear new experiences and change.
How Is Alcoholism & Dementia Linked?According to a study published in the journal The Lancet Public Health, the majority of early-onset dementia cases are alcohol-related. The study examined data from more than 1 million adults with dementia from 2008 to 2013. More than 33 percent of the dementia cases they documented were directly related to alcohol consumption. Eighteen percent of those people had an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Based on the data they gathered, researchers concluded that having an alcohol use disorder can make you 3 times more likely to develop a form of dementia. “We hypothesized that alcohol would play some role [in dementia], but I don’t think anyone expected the size of the effect to be so large,” Dr. Jurgen Rhem, director of the University of Toronto’s Center for Addiction and lead study author, said. “We concluded that alcohol use disorders were the most significant modifiable risk factor for dementia onset,” Dr. Michael Schwarzinger, a French scientist and study author, added. Other research confirms the connection between heavy drinking and dementia
- Data from a 2019 study revealed that having more than 14 drinks per week can cause lower cognitive functioning in adults 72 years and older.
- Heavy alcohol use (more than 14 drinks per week for men and more than 8 drinks per week for women) can cause changes in brain structure, cognitive impairments, and an increased risk of dementia. This study also revealed that reducing heavy use may be an effective way to prevent dementia.
- An English study found that older adults who continued to binge drink once per month were 62 percent more likely to experience the greatest declines in cognitive function, and were 27 percent more likely to experience the highest amount of memory loss.
- A study published in Epidemiology reveals that people who consume 5 or more bottles of beer in one sitting or one bottle of wine during their midlife period are 3 times more likely to have dementia by age 65 compared to people who do not binge drink in midlife.
- Nearly 80% of people with an alcohol use disorder have thiamine, or vitamin B12, deficiency, and develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which consists of two separate-but-linked forms of dementia. Symptoms can include confusion, loss of muscle coordination, memory problems, and loss of mental activity that can lead to a coma or death. However, unlike most types of dementia, you can reverse this alcohol-induced dementia.
- Toxins in alcohol directly interfering with the way brain cells function
- Periods of heavy drinking leading to overall brain shrinkage
- Repeated intoxication and withdrawal adding stress to the brain and weakening brain cells
- Increasing the likelihood of traumatic head injuries that can harm the brain
- Consuming large amounts of alcohol and preventing neurons from regenerating