Alcohol Brain Damage: How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : November 09, 
| 4 Sources

Alcoholism can damage the brain beyond repair, leading to alcoholic dementia

Researchers are still understanding the complicated relationship between alcoholism, the brain, and associated alcohol brain damage. This is because dementia is a naturally sensitive disorder, and it is impossible to completely test patients with dementia for true objectivity.

Excessive alcohol consumption poses severe health risks, and that a lot of people regularly drink at levels that are harmful to their mental and physical health. It’s widely-known that people who suffer from alcoholism face a bigger risk of developing dementia symptoms when compared to people who drink in moderation or abstain from drinking altogether. Studies estimate that 4-20% of all dementia cases are attributed directly to alcohol abuse.

Yet, in the midst of this concerning figure, there is also some good news. Although alcohol dementia can be progressive when left untreated, it can be halted and even reversed with early intervention.

How does this happen? The alcoholic must stop drinking alcohol altogether in order for their cognitive abilities to return. Likewise, they must make this behavioral choice before the dementia reaches the critical point of no return.

After reaching the point of no return, the brain has been so badly damaged by alcohol that nothing can be done.

Alcohol Brain Damage
What is Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for memory loss, and loss of problem-solving, language, as well as other thinking abilities that are serious enough to interfere with a person’s daily life. Despite how many people use the term, dementia is not actually a disease. Instead, dementia simply refers to a cluster of various signs and symptoms that could indicate a number of cognitive-decline illnesses including: 

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Huntington's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Pick's disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Multi-Infarct Dementia

The sign/symptoms of dementia can include:

  • Personality changes
  • Loss of problem-solving skills
  • Communication problems
  • Disorientation
  • New and unfamiliar behaviors
alcoholic dementia

For more on dementia visit this fantastic resource on the different dementias. Essentially, dementia refers to severe challenges associated with basic neurological functioning like memory, language skills, problem-solving abilities, self-management, and attention.

Many times, people with dementia can no longer control their emotions. It's not uncommon for loved ones to feel like they can no longer recognize the identity of the person with dementia.

In the most severe stage, people with dementia must rely on other caretakers to support them with basic living needs.

Dementia is most common in older people. In fact, research shows that up to half of all people age 85 and older may exhibit some form of dementia symptoms. However, it should be noted that this doesn’t mean it’s a normal part of the aging process.

There are many well-functioning individuals in their 90's and beyond who don’t show any signs of dementia.

Alcohol Brain Damage
What is Alcoholic Dementia?

Excessive drinking over a long period of time can lead to alcoholic dementia (a condition that was formerly known as alcohol-induced major neurocognitive disorder). This kind of dementia can also cause memory problems and issues associated with learning and cognition.

It causes neurological damage, having a direct effect on the brain cells which results in various symptoms.

One of the main symptoms associated with alcoholic dementia is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) - often known as wet brain. This condition really consists of two disorders that may consist together or independently.

  • The first, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, refers to a combination of abnormal eye movements, confusion, and unsteady gait.
  • The second refers to a set of psychotic symptoms.

It should be noted that alcohol itself does not cause wet brain. Instead, wet brain occurs due to a severe thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Vitamin B1 helps the brain produce energy from sugar. If there is a consistent deficiency in this vitamin, the brain cells fail to produce enough energy to function appropriately.

It’s well-known that alcoholics tend to struggle with nutritional deficiencies. Many people sacrifice healthy diets in exchange for excessive alcohol consumption. Over the long term, this deficiency can lead to disruption within the nerve cells.

Moreover, a lack of vitamin B1 can cause permanent nerve cell damage.

Alcohol Brain Damage
Symptoms of Alcoholic Dementia

The symptoms of alcoholic dementia are much the same as any other dementia. Along with the symptoms listed above those with alcoholic dementia may exhibit some of the following:

alcohol brain damage
  • Confusion
  • Short term memory problems. They may well be able to remember quite clearly what happened 20 years ago at Christmas. But ask them about 5 minutes previously, and they won't have a clue.
  • Depression.
  • Repetition. Of questions, information etc.
  • Anxiety/Fearfulness.
  • Displays an inability to concentrate.
  • Learning disability. Has great difficulty in assimilating new information.

Wernicke-Korsakoff's syndrome (an advanced form of alcoholic dementia) has specific symptoms. More can be found by visiting the page wet brain.

Alcohol Brain Damage
What is the Difference Between Alcoholic Dementia and 'Normal' Dementia?

It can be very difficult to distinguish between alcoholic dementia and other types of dementia.This is because the symptoms for all dementia types are very similar, and the individual may not remember their personal history.

However, it is not that difficult to determine if someone's dementia is caused by alcohol. If he/she has been drinking excessively and continuously over many years then, in all likelihood, alcohol is, at the very least, contributing to his/her symptoms.

If the dementia sufferer can abstain from alcohol (only attempt withdrawal from alcohol under medical supervision) for a month and their cognitive abilities improve then alcohol, obviously, is causing the dementia.

Alcoholism and the Brain
Treatment for Alcoholic Dementia

The initial treatment for alcoholic dementia is very simple.....

... avoid excessive use of alcohol

(Remember, though, only attempt alcoholism detox under medical supervision. Quitting or severely reducing alcohol intake without monitoring can lead to dangerous withdrawal effects that may include seizures. In some cases, this can result in death. If you are struggling with severe alcoholism, it is always best to receive formal treatment.)

There are medications used in the treatment of other dementia types, but these are not as effective in treating alcoholic dementia.

Generally speaking, the earlier you focus on 'treating' alcohol related dementia, the better. As mentioned, some of the effects may be reversible if caught and treated early enough.

Of course, stopping drinking is only the first step. Stopping is one thing - staying sober for the long-term is an entirely different battle. It’s no secret that alcohol addiction recovery is a long and hard journey. However, it can restore both your physical and emotional health - and it can prevent future problems from emerging.

A relapse into drinking will only lead to further brain damage and a worsening of the alcoholic dementia.

It’s Never Too Late to Stop Alcohol Abuse!

To know more about your options for alcohol abuse treatments and prevent further brain damage from happening, reach out to a committed treatment provider sooner than later.

If you or someone close to you wants help and advice on quitting drinking then take a look at the following pages:

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


Mayo Clinic. Alcohol use disorder.

NCBI. Alcohol and Dementia – What is the Link? A Systematic Review. 2020.

Time. Heavy Drinking Is the Biggest Risk Factor for Dementia, Study Says. February 22, 2018.

Alzheimer’s Association. What Is Dementia?.


Alzheimer's Assoc. - What is Dementia?
VeryWellMind - Alcoholic Dementia

Return from Alcohol Brain Damage to Alcohol Abuse Effects

Return from Alcohol Brain Damage to Alcoholism Help Homepage

Alcoholism Help Homepage | What is Alcoholism | Signs of Alcoholism | Alcoholism Tests | Alcohol Abuse Effects | Living with an Addict | Alcoholism Recovery | The AA Way| Alcoholism Cure| Alcoholism Medication | My Story | Alcoholism Guide Blog | Contact Us | Disclaimer | Privacy Policy

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.