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Alcohol and Health

Can Alcohol Cause Dementia?

June 19, 2023
7 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 19, 2023
7 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 19, 2023
7 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 19, 2023
7 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 19, 2023
7 min read

Picture our brain as an intricate highway system with thoughts and memories zooming around like speedy race cars. Now imagine alcohol as fog rolling in, slowing down, and even misdirecting these cars at times. This is one way to think of the complex relationship between dementia, brain health, and drinking.

Ready to learn more? Strap in, and let's journey together into the science behind drinking and dementia, and how to use this information to guide our everyday decisions.

The Brain and Alcohol

Our brain is an incredible organ, but excessive drinking can affect it in various ways. Alcohol’s impacts on memory are related to a key neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which our brain uses to communicate. Alcohol is notorious for disrupting acetylcholine production: it's like the network towers gradually starting to go down, and our messages get lost or delayed.

Alcohol is notorious for disrupting acetylcholine production: it's like the network towers gradually starting to go down, and our messages get lost or delayed.

But that's not all. Long-term heavy drinking can cause brain shrinkage. Our brain physically becomes smaller, losing volume in white matter. This can eventually affect how the brain functions.

Deep Dive Into Dementia and Drinking

Let's look at some research. Dementia is like a thief, gradually making off with precious memories. But did you know that alcohol can act as an accomplice? 

Five million Americans over the age of 65 have some kind of dementia –– and most cases (60-80%) are attributed to Alzheimer’s disease. Alcohol and Alzheimer's are a dangerous combination, both in that alcohol can increase Alzheimer’s risk and that it can also worsen the disease progression in people who already have it. While Alzheimer’s is marked by a gradual loss of memory and changes to the brain, other causes of dementia include Lewy body and vascular dementia. 

Most research indicates that heavy, long-term alcohol use can increase the risk of developing dementia of any form. In fact, people who drink more than 14 standard drinks a week have an increased risk of dementia and a higher likelihood of onset at earlier ages. Alcohol and dementia risk are unambiguously related — let’s talk about how it works.

Alcohol disrupts how nerve cells communicate in our brain, like static over a telephone line. In time, this static can cause confusion, memory loss, and in some cases, dementia. 

Further, excessive drinking is thought to cause tau proteins to accrue in the brain. Tau proteins cause tangles in the brain, a hallmark of dementia brought on by Alzheimer’s disease.

Test tube studies suggest that alcohol might impede an important process called phagocytosis, in which white blood cells surround beta-amyloid protein fragments and get rid of them. Over time, this accumulation leads to the formation of plaques that promote Alzheimer's disease –– similar to tau proteins.

What’s more, excessive drinking can increase the risk of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) –– a condition brought about by a chronic vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency that mimics dementia in its symptoms. 

When it’s caused by excessive drinking, thiamine absorption is impaired in the gut. Much research remains to be done on WKS, but without treatment, it can result in permanent memory loss.

The Silver Linings

The science is on our side –– and research indicates that reducing alcohol intake can reduce our risk of dementia. 

Remember that foggy highway from earlier? Imagine we install traffic lights and signs to guide the cars better. That's what cutting back on our drinking can do — it can clear up the fog and help our mental traffic flow more smoothly.

The relationship between alcohol and dementia is complex, and there’s a lot still left to understand. There are, however, ways in which we can reduce our risk.

  1. Track alcohol intake. Like setting a speed limit on our highway, it's beneficial to set a limit on our alcohol intake. Reframe can help you track your drinking habits to get a better sense of the big picture.

  2. Embrace mindful social activities. Instead of meeting friends at a bar, try a walk in the park, a game night, or even a cooking session. If you really feel like cutting loose, there are plenty of sober-friendly drinks these days you can order at any bar to help you cut back.

  3. Regular health check-ups. Keeping up with regular doctor's visits and health screenings can help detect potential issues early, making them easier to address.

It's never too late to change our habits and make healthier choices! Arming ourselves with an understanding of alcohol’s impact on the brain can help keep the fog in the distance. By understanding the link between Alzheimer's and alcohol or dementia and alcohol, we have the power to change our own behaviors and build a brighter, healthier future.

Cut Through the Fog and Thrive With Reframe!

Changing our relationship with alcohol is one of the best things we can do to improve our quality of life. Don’t wait –– download Reframe right now and kickstart your journey to wellness and improved insulin resistance.

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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Our articles undergo frequent updates to present the newest scientific research and changes in expert consensus in an easily understandable and implementable manner.
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