Dementia Centred

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By Wendy Perry

April 15th, 2016

Sobering facts on alcohol & dementia

Many of us have heard and embraced the research around the preventative benefits of drinking red wine (Poli et al 2013) and champagne (Corona et al 2013). Of course when it comes to research we often hear what we want to hear. The studies that tell us it is okay to do the things we enjoy are widely celebrated. 

Unfortunately, the potential health benefits to be found in red wine and champagne happens at quite a low level of consumption. In general, many people who consume alcohol do it in levels beyond the range where the health benefits occur. For some people excessive alcohol consumption can lead to Alcohol Related Brain Damage (ARBD). This includes conditions such as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, Wernicke’s-Korsakoff’s Syndrome and alcohol related dementia.

These conditions were once seen as a problem primarily among men aged 50-60, and were rarely talked about in relation to older people or women, but as social drinking habits change so does the population of people impacted by ARBD. We are seeing larger numbers of older people of both genders being diagnosed with ARBD.  

As the body ages, the safe level of alcohol consumption decreases, because alcohol has a stronger impact on the ageing body. This is the result of changes in renal and liver functioning and the potential for interactions between prescription medications and alcohol (Cox et al 2004).  This is significant as the alcohol guidelines defining a “safe consumption” level are based on the processing efficiency found in a younger body.  

Of course many people, young and old, consume alcohol at levels above the recommended guidelines and do not develop ARBD, but for those who do, there is often difficulty getting an accurate diagnosis in time to treat it aggressively (as is needed with Wernicke’s encephalopathy), and appropriate support and care settings which address not just their symptoms but the larger issues behind their drinking.

Partial and occasionally complete recovery is possible for some people who experience Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which makes it quite unique among conditions that causes dementia. Because of this, it is vital that an individual receives the appropriate support to make the fullest recovery possible and to prevent further cognitive loss.

Do you support someone with the diagnosis of ARBD and would like to have a better understanding of the disease process and how to support individual? Find out more about our one day course Alcohol and dementia: improving understanding and practice.


Poli, A. et al (2013) Moderate alcohol use and health: A consensus document. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases

Corona, Giulia et al  (2013) Phenolic Acid Intake, Delivered Via Moderate Champagne Wine Consumption, Improves Spatial Working memory via the Modulation of Hippocampal and Cortical Protein Expression/Activation. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling 

Cox S, Anderson I and McCabe L Eds (2004) A Fuller Life: Report of the Expert Group on Alcohol Related Brain Damage Scottish Executive, DSDC University of Stirling

McCabe, L. (2011) Alcohol, Aging and Dementia: A Scottish perspective. Dementia 10:149 


Creative Commons Photo "Gravity is out of order" by Maarten Takens is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Categories: Alcohol