Compared with Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for 50 to 60 percent of dementia, alcoholic dementia accounts for an estimated 10 percent of cognitive deterioration (Gray, G.E. "Nutrition and Dementia," Journal of the American Dietetic Association (1989) 89:1795).
The typical person with alcoholic dementia has a long history of alcohol abuse. However, stereotypes of alcoholics are often mistaken. Many alcoholics function reasonably well for many years and drink in secret, so their friends and loved ones may be unaware of the extent of their drinking.
In addition, whether or not an individual is an alcoholic, with increasing age, a given amount of alcohol impairs mental function more and more, so over time, even a few drinks a day might be enough to cause noticeable cognitive problems.
Alcohol's effects are also weight-related. A given amount cause greater intoxication and mental impairment for thin people than for those who weigh more. Compared with their middle-age weight, many elderly people weigh less, so alcohol affects them more.
Finally, alcohol-related dementia often is just one aspect of a problem that may also includes one or more of the following: multi- infarct dementia, nutritional deficiencies, other drugs, and Alzheimer's disease.
If you suspect a loss of cognitive function, encourage the affected person to drink less, or stop drinking altogether. With abstinence, alcohol-related dementia gradually clears up over a few weeks to two months.
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