Alcohol is unique in that affects almost every type of neurotransmitter in your brain. Other mood-altering substances might only wreak havoc on one or two types of neurotransmitters, but alcohol lets its presence be known in your entire body and can shred your mind. When alcohol affects these neurotransmitters, it causes negative health consequences, many of which we are still learning about.
Recently there has been talk on a connection between alcoholism and debilitating Alzheimer’s disease, but is there any truth to the connection? Both alcoholism and Alzheimer’s are life changers, and both affect the brain, but can a predisposition to booze lead directly to a diagnosable condition? Let’s learn more about the relationship between this chronic condition and alcohol.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurological disease that can have negative impacts on memory, mood, thinking, behavior, and more. It is a progressive form of dementia, which means the disease will only get worse if not treated, and often worse even when treated. There is no one cause of Alzheimer’s – currently researchers believe the condition is caused by a mixture of genetic factors, environmental factors, and lifestyle choice – including alcohol consumption.
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia diagnosis, accounting for approximately 60- 80% of dementia cases in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s estimated that one-third of American adults over age 85 are diagnosable for Alzheimer’s according to the National Institute of Aging. The condition is currently treatable, but incurable.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s presents itself in many types of symptoms, but most affect the sufferer’s cognitive abilities. Let’s review ten early symptoms and signs of Alzheimer’s.
- Disruptive memory loss
- Difficulty completing previously familiar tasks and chores
- Confusing times, dates, and places
- Difficulty in solving routine problems and following plans
- Trouble in reading, writing, or speaking
- Poor judgment control
- Decreased short-term memory (Can’t find misplaced items)
- Personality or mood shifts (rage, depression, paranoia)
- Withdrawal from normal daily activities
- Vision problems
There are more signs and symptoms, but these ten are hallmarks of the disease.
What Does Alcohol do to the Brain?
Most people do not drink enough alcohol to do any permanent damage to the brain and most medical experts believe small amounts of alcohol are relatively harmless. In fact, new research indicates small amounts of alcohol might help protect the brain against neurological breakdown, including Alzheimer’s.
However, large amounts of alcohol and continuous alcohol use have several detrimental effects to the brain and neurological system. Alcoholism can cause debilitating Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and Korsakoff’s psychosis, both commonly referred to as ‘wet brain’ which we will get into later.
Alcoholism blocks certain chemical signals, accelerates other signals, and plays havoc on your neurological system. Alcoholics are known to have reduced ‘gray’ and ‘white’ brain matter in their brains, just like Alzheimer’s. Alcohol’s effects on neurotransmitters can also cause them to ‘burn out’ which can cause a variety of neurological impairments. Females may be more impacted than males in these effects.
Wet brain is a diagnosable neurological disease which is caused by lack of Vitamin B, particularly thiamine. You can develop wet brain without being an alcoholic, though alcoholics account for most diagnosable cases. Both wet brain and Alzheimer’s are associated with a loss of brain matter and both have similar symptoms, but they are two separate conditions.
Differences Between Alcoholism and Alzheimer’s
Alcoholism and Alzheimer’s present similar effects on the brain, but there are some differences, namely in the progression of the disease. Alzheimer’s is progressive, which means it will get worse over time. While alcoholism is also a progressive disease, its effects on the brain generally stop or slow down when the user stops drinking. Though alcoholics can suffer permanent brain damage from alcohol, an otherwise healthy individual who stops drinking will regain cognitive function and rebuild their gray and white brain matter over time.
The Connection Between Alcoholism and Alzheimer’s
Is there an actual connection between alcoholism and Alzheimer’s? Of course. Though they are two separate conditions, they both diminish brain size and can cause neurological deterioration. Alzheimer’s research and study groups Alzheimer’s Disease International and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) poured over dozens of different reports and studies that explored the link between alcoholism and dementia and most all the studies reached the same conclusion – those who binge drink or are chronic alcoholics are much more likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease, compared to their moderate or light-drinking peers. The studies reviewed used different sample sizes, different ages, different races, and more, but almost all found a correlation between Alzheimer’s and heavy alcohol use.
This is not a surprising conclusion since alcohol weakens a brain’s function, which can make you more predisposed to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Think of it this way, you could get diagnosed with dental disease even if you take good care of your oral health, but you’re much more likely to be diagnosed if you don’t take care of your teeth and gums. You can never drink a drop of alcohol and still be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but you’re much more likely to diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (and earlier) if you wreck your brain with alcohol.
Both alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease destroy a brain and can cause several symptoms like confusion, forgetfulness, and mood swings. According to dozens of studies reviewed by Alzheimer’s Disease International and NICE, alcoholism cannot be pointed to as a sole cause of Alzheimer’s, but those who drink heavily are much more likely to develop the condition. It will always be difficult to tell if alcoholism is the direct cause of diagnosed Alzheimer’s, but the connections between the two conditions remain strong. If you want to avoid early-onset Alzheimer’s, you need to let go of alcoholism first.