Is There A Link Between Addiction and Dementia?

Posted on October 1, 2022

elderly man drinking alcohol and abuse drugs

Many harmful side effects have been linked to addiction, from liver disease to heart attacks and overdose to death. But one potential side effect of substance abuse that may have received less attention is dementia. According to the World Health Organization, about 50 million people have dementia, with an additional 10 million diagnosed yearly. Extended abuse of alcohol and some drugs have been linked to an increased risk of dementia.

Currently, there is more evidence linking alcoholism to the potential development of dementia. Still, preliminary studies have raised concerns about how benzodiazepines and cannabis may increase someone’s odds of impaired cognition. Additionally, some prescription medications used to treat depression, urological conditions or the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease have been linked to a slightly higher risk of dementia.

Alcohol and Dementia

While much remains unknown about the link between illicit drugs and dementia, researchers have established that an individual with a severe and prolonged addiction to alcohol is more likely to develop dementia or other cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

This conclusion is only for those who drink excessively for long periods. A recent study showed a connection between heavy drinking and dementia. A person defined as a heavy drinker was three times more likely to suffer from dementia. Moderate drinking has not been linked to any increase in dementia.

Drugs and Dementia

As with alcohol, the possible link between certain drugs and dementia increases based on the amount of the drug the person takes and how long they take it. A group of French and Canadian researchers found that a link existed between the use of benzodiazepines and dementia. The study identified about 2,000 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, ages 66 and older. Of this cohort, those who had taken a benzodiazepine for more than six months increased their risk of dementia by more than 80% over those who had not taken a benzodiazepine.

The type of benzodiazepine the person took influenced the outcome as well. Long-acting options such as diazepam (Valium) or flurazepam (Dalmane) posed a greater risk than the short-acting benzodiazepine options like triazolam (Halcion), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax) or temazepam (Restoril).

Recent research indicates that marijuana may damage the brain by reducing the blood flow to all parts of the brain, with the hippocampus affected the most. The hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with memory and learning and is typically the first region found to be affected by Alzheimer’s. These preliminary findings should serve as a warning of the potential risk of dementia associated with the long-term use of marijuana.

Understanding Alcohol Consumption Levels

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) describes heavy drinking as four or more drinks a day or more than 14 drinks per week for a male and three drinks per day or more than seven per week for a female. Moderate drinking is defined as no more than two drinks per day for males, and one or less for females.

Standard drink amounts in the U.S. are based on alcohol content. Additionally, the serving amount for a standard drink will vary based on the type of alcohol. A standard drink is considered to have about 14 grams of pure alcohol, which breaks down to:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol

Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Dementia

There are many kinds of dementia, so the signs someone displays can vary. Some of the common symptoms include:

  • Unexplained changes in personality
  • Trouble solving complex problems
  • Difficulty with directions or navigation
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Cognitive problems that make daily life difficult
  • Poor decision-making
  • Confusion with place or time
  • Trouble with communicating, such as chronic word-finding difficulties or increased problems reading or understanding speech

Types of Dementia

Dementia is not a disease but a syndrome that encompasses several brain diseases. All these conditions are considered progressive and sometimes chronic and result in issues with a person’s thinking, behavior, and memory.

While Alzheimer’s is what most people think of when they hear of dementia, there are many forms. One type is alcohol-related dementia, which is marked by symptoms including:

  • Difficulty staying focused on a task without becoming distracted
  • Issues with solving problems, planning, and organizing
  • Problems setting goals, making judgments and decisions
  • Challenges with staying motivated to do tasks or activities (even essential ones like eating or drinking)
  • Trouble controlling emotions
  • Struggling to understand how other people are thinking or feeling (their behavior may seem insensitive or uncaring)

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is linked explicitly to heavy drinking because of a severe body shortage of thiamine (vitamin B-1). The main symptoms of this disorder are confusion, an inability to coordinate voluntary movements, and changes in vision or other eye problems.

Other types of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Vascular Dementia
  • Dementia With Lewy Bodies (DLB)
  • Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
  • Mixed Dementia
  • Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease
  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

Asking for help with substance abuse issues is an essential first step in combating any potential long-term health issues, including an increased dementia risk. If a person is already struggling with memory loss or dementia, it is also essential that they stop drinking or using illicit drugs to help improve their outlook. Depending on the type of dementia and its severity, some symptoms may be permanent, while others may be manageable or even reversible. Consulting with a healthcare professional should be the first step in creating a treatment plan.

A licensed mental health and substance abuse intensive outpatient program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona, Rising Phoenix was created to offer a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are not judged, but embraced, throughout their recovery process.

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