Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD): what is it and who gets it?

Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is a brain disorder. It is caused by a person regularly drinking too much alcohol, or binge-drinking, over several years. There are different types of ARBD. People who get ARBD are generally aged between about 40 and 50. 

Alcohol-related brain damage
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How is ARBD different to dementia?

ARBD doesn’t always get worse over time, unlike common causes of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. If a person with ARBD stops drinking alcohol and receives good support, they may be able to make a partial or even full recovery. They may regain much of their memory and thinking skills, and their ability to do things independently. 

What can happen if a person drinks too much alcohol on a regular basis?

If a person regularly drinks much more than the recommended limit of alcohol, it can damage their brain. It causes their memory and ability to think clearly to get worse over time, especially if the person drinks too much over many years.  

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This is known as alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) or alcohol-related brain injury (ARBI).  Some people with ARBD will only have small changes to their thinking and memory, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). They are at  risk of more serious brain damage unless they stop drinking. 

Other people with ARBD will have more serious problems with their memory and thinking.  Alcohol-related ‘dementia’ or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome will cause them to struggle with day-to-day tasks. This is similar to someone living with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease

How much alcohol is too much alcohol?

A unit is a measure of alcohol. You can find out how many units are in an alcoholic drink by reading the label. The NHS recommends not drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week. This should ideally be spread over three or more days because ‘binge-drinking’ is particularly harmful to the brain.

When a person starts drinking more than around 25 units per week on a regular basis, it may start to affect their ability to think and function properly. 

Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short space of time (such as a single evening) is known as ‘binge-drinking’. It is equivalent to drinking 8 units or more for men and 6 units or more for women. It has been suggested that older people should have lower limits because they are at greater risk of the damaging effects of alcohol.

What causes ARBD?

ARBD is caused by a person regularly drinking or binge-drinking much more alcohol than the recommended limit. Alcohol can damage the brain in several different ways, but the most common are the following.

Damage to nerve cells

If a person regularly drinks too much alcohol it can be toxic to their nerve cells. Over time, drinking too much alcohol can cause brain cells to die and a person’s brain tissue to shrink. This means there are fewer cells to carry the messages that the brain needs to do different tasks.

Damage to blood vessels

Regularly drinking too much alcohol damages blood vessels in a person’s brain and can lead to high blood pressure. Both increase their risk of having a stroke (when the brain does not get enough oxygen and is damaged).

Low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1)

A lot of the brain damage that is caused by alcohol happens because it prevents the body from getting  enough thiamine (vitamin B1). This is a vitamin that the brain needs to work properly.

People who are addicted to alcohol are also much less likely to have a balanced diet. They often get a lot of their energy from alcoholic drinks. This means that over months and years they have a higher risk of malnutrition, including a lack of vitamins such as thiamine (vitamin B1).

Increased risk of head injuries

If a person regularly drinks too much alcohol, they also have a higher risk of repeated head injuries. While under the effects of alcohol they may fall and hit their head, or receive blows to the head in fights or as victims of violence. Both can cause lasting damage to the brain.

A person with ARBD may experience all of these types of damage. The different types of damage are linked to different types of ARBD. For example, Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome is most closely linked with low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1).

What are the different types of ARBD?

Usually a person is diagnosed with a specific type of ARBD. Depending on their symptoms, they may have one of several conditions, including:

The two main types of ARBD that can cause symptoms of dementia are alcohol-related ‘dementia’ and Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. Neither of these are actual types of dementia, because you cannot get better from dementia, and there is some chance of recovery in both of these conditions.

How is ARBD treated?

A person who has ARBD won’t only have problems caused by damage to their brain. They will usually also be addicted to alcohol. This means that they have become dependent on it. Addiction can make it much more difficult to treat a person with ARBD. This is because professionals need to treat the person’s alcohol addiction together with their symptoms related to memory and thinking. 

Who gets ARBD?

About one in 10 people with dementia have some form of ARBD. In people with young-onset dementia (who are younger than 65 years old) ARBD affects about one in eight people. It is likely – for a wide range of reasons – that the condition is under-diagnosed. This means that the number of people living with ARBD is probably higher.

People who are diagnosed with ARBD are usually aged between about 40 and 50. This is younger than the age when people usually develop the more common types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It is not clear why some people who drink too much alcohol develop ARBD, while others do not.

ARBD affects men much more often than women. However, women who have ARBD tend to get it at a younger age than men, and after fewer years of alcohol misuse. This is because women are at a greater risk of the damaging effects of alcohol.

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