While alcohol abuse can have deadly consequences and is blamed for more than 2.8% of all U.S. fatalities, many people don’t realize it can produce other permanent consequences. As soon as you begin using alcohol, it goes to work on the cells in your brain. Alcohol acts as a depressant, affecting all areas of the brain as you consume it, which is why the effects are produced so quickly.
While alcohol does produce the euphoric sensations that prompt continued use, it also affects brain functioning in other ways. Blurred vision, slower reaction times, and trouble walking are just a few of the symptoms that occur when alcohol starts attacking brain cells. Most people are unaware that prolonged addiction to alcohol can result in permanent brain damage. It can also cause permanent or long-lasting damage to the central nervous system.+
Alcoholism Can Result in Brain Damage
You have undoubtedly heard people describe alcohol as a toxin, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the effects of alcohol on the brain can be permanent. Damage becomes more likely with heavier use, which can be defined as heavy binge drinking more than four days per month. Other factors that may affect how alcohol interacts with the brain include:
- How much alcohol is consumed
- How often alcohol is consumed
- The length of time the individual has been abusing alcohol
- The age, gender, and overall health status of the individual
- Family history of alcoholism
Once you consume alcohol, it travels throughout the body, infecting various organs in the body, including the liver, heart, and central nervous system. Ultimately, it passes beyond the blood-brain barrier and begins attacking the neurons.
The brain is home to more than 100 billion neurons that connect the brain to the central nervous system, but the alcohol attacks these neurons and kills them. This causes communication between the brain and the nervous system to become compromised, which is why you slur your speech, lose your balance, and have difficulty concentrating.
The Types of Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is more commonly known as “wet brain,” and it’s often the result of the malnourishment experienced by alcoholics. People who abuse alcohol suffer from a vitamin B1 (Thiamine) deficiency, partly because they’re not eating nutritious foods and partly because the alcohol prevents the body from absorbing the vitamin. As a result of developing WKS, the individual may experience difficulty with muscular coordination, including eye muscle paralysis. Confusion, forgetfulness, and an inability to learn are also signs of this type of alcohol-induced dementia.
Another type of brain damage that can be caused by alcohol abuse is hepatic encephalopathy. In this condition, excessive alcohol consumption overworks the liver and causes it to become inflamed. This prevents the liver from filtering toxins out of the blood, so it ends up sending “bad blood” to the brain. This condition causes a change in sleep patterns and alters the mood or personality of the individual. Anxiety, depression, and a short attention span are also common characteristics of someone suffering from hepatic encephalopathy.
The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Typically, alcohol-induced brain damage will develop after 10 to 20 years of heavy drinking, but it depends on the individual’s specific circumstances. For instance, it can take women less time to develop brain damage, because they typically have lower body weights.
Usually, this type of brain damage isn’t identified until after a lifetime of drinking, so people are usually diagnosed between the ages of 45 and 60. While brain damage at this late stage may be irreversible, diagnosing the condition earlier may make it possible for a treatment to be effective. The type and severity of the brain damage will dictate how treatment may proceed, but it can involve preventative care, restorative care, or end of life care. While WKS can’t be cured, Thiamine vitamin supplements can help reduce the deficiency and alleviate many of the symptoms. Other types of alcohol-induced brain damage, including hepatic encephalopathy, can be halted and possibly reversed by quitting drinking. The brain has strong restorative capabilities, so treating the addiction may provide the brain with an opportunity to heal itself. If you are concerned about the long-term effects of your drinking, contact one of our counselors today.
We’re available 24 hours a day at 877-497-6180 to answer any questions you may have about entering an addiction treatment program. This can be the first step in helping you prevent the prolonged health hazards associated with alcoholism.