Alcoholism is a disease that affects approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population. More than just a social taboo, alcoholism is also a major public health problem. It is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. and causes tens of millions of dollars in healthcare costs each year.

Alcoholism can also result in other serious medical conditions, including liver disease, pancreatitis, stroke, and dementia. While many studies have explored the connection between alcohol use and the development of dementia, there is emerging evidence that the disease may also result from alcoholism. Here are some ways that alcoholism can cause early dementia.

The Link Between Alcoholism and Dementia

The most common early signs of dementia in alcoholics are memory loss and changes in thinking speed. As the disease progresses, patients may develop misdiagnoses, such as depression, anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Studies examining the relationship between alcohol and the development of dementia have found an increased risk of both cognitive decline and the progression to clinical dementia in alcoholics.

This link between dementia and alcoholism has been observed in many studies and meta-analyses, including a 2004 study that followed more than 10,000 people over a period of 20 years and found that people who drank heavily were two times more likely to develop dementia than those who did not drink.

How Alcoholism Can Cause Dementia

As alcoholics develop early dementia, it is important to consider the underlying causes. One important factor is the level of alcohol consumption. Moderate drinking can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, while excessive or binge drinking can increase these risks.

A second, but often overlooked, factor is the duration of drinking. While most studies have followed patients for a period of one year or less, many long-term studies have found that people who abuse alcohol show an accelerated rate of brain aging.

This may be due to the fact that long-term heavy drinking can lead to alcohol-related damage in multiple areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, an area involved in learning and memory.

The Role of Genetics in Alcoholism and Dementia

Although many factors increase the risk of developing alcoholism, one of the most significant is genetics. Certain individuals are simply more likely to become alcoholics. Studies have found that about 50 percent of the risk for developing alcoholism is inherited, meaning that those with a family history of the disease are at a higher risk.

One of the first signs of an elevated risk for alcoholism is an increased volume of the caudate nucleus, a region of the brain associated with learning and memory.

Additionally, many studies have found that people with an inherited tendency toward alcoholism also have an increased risk of developing certain psychiatric disorders, including mood disorders and anxiety disorders.

These findings suggest that a combination of genetic and environmental factors cause alcoholism, which in turn raises the risk of developing other illnesses, including dementia.

How Environmental Factors Play a Role in Alcoholism and Dementia

Studies have found that the environment in which an individual lives can also affect the risk of developing alcoholism. Those who grow up in an area with higher socioeconomic status (SES) are less likely to become alcoholics.

This may be due to the fact that those with higher SES often live in environments that are more conducive to healthy eating and physical activity. As a result, they are exposed to less peer pressure to begin drinking at a young age.

In addition to their genetic makeup, another factor that may explain why some individuals are less likely to become alcoholics is the presence of a family member who has already survived alcoholism. One study found that individuals who were raised by alcoholics had a reduced risk of becoming alcoholics, compared to individuals who were raised by non-alcoholics.

How Environmental Factors Can Help Treat Alcoholism

Despite the fact that environmental factors can raise the risk of developing alcoholism, they can also help treat the disease. Prolonged, excessive alcohol use can lead to a condition called alcohol dependence. This means that individuals develop a psychological craving for alcohol, leading to detrimental effects, such as weight gain, decreased productivity, and an increased risk of developing chronic diseases.

Individuals with an alcohol dependence diagnosis often attempt to quit drinking on their own, but typically fail after a few weeks. This can be a source of frustration and depression, which in turn can lead to a relapse.

Environmental factors are a promising strategy for treating alcoholism. Individuals who are at risk for or who have been diagnosed with alcoholism can benefit from exposure to the social norms associated with moderation and the recovery process.

Exposure to others who are recovering from alcoholism can help individuals accept the disease and understand that it does not mean that the person is a bad person. In fact, it can strengthen the support network in the person’s life, making it less likely that he or she will relapse.


Moderate drinking can have health benefits, but heavy drinking is a significant health risk and can also cause early dementia.

A number of environmental factors can help prevent or reduce the risk of developing alcoholism, including growing up in a healthy environment and living in a place with lower socioeconomic status (SES).

Furthermore, individuals who are at risk for or who have been diagnosed with alcoholism can also benefit from exposure to social norms that promote moderation, such as learning that drinking too much is not good for one’s health.

These findings suggest that environmental factors play an important role in the development of alcoholism, but that they can also help treat the disease.

Asheville Recovery Center is Here for You 

Alcoholism and addiction can affect anyone. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent addiction and help those who are already struggling. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, it is important to get treatment. At Asheville Recovery Center treatment specialists utilize a 12-step program and practice holistic rehabilitation. 

Services at the center include:

 Partial Hospitalization Program – At Asheville Recovery Center we offer a partial hospitalization program for clients who need post-residential treatment as well as for clients who need primary treatment but are unable to enroll in inpatient programs. Our PHP track offers a variety of therapeutic services and benefits to individuals in early recovery from substance addiction.  

Outpatient Rehabilitation – During intensive outpatient treatment (IOP), clients live at home or in a sober living residence while completing an addiction treatment program. IOP is a place where clients can process their experiences in twelve-step fellowships and support one another in those individual journeys. 

Addiction is difficult to overcome alone. If you feel that you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, our specialists are on standby and ready to help. Call and speak with an addiction expert today.

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