Alcohol-related brain damage (including Korsakoff's syndrome)

2. Alcohol as a risk factor for dementia

Drinking more than the recommended limit for alcohol increases a person's risk of developing common types of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. The NHS recommended limits are now a maximum of 14 units each week for men and women, spread over 3 or more days - although lower limits have been suggested for older people because their bodies handle alcohol differently. A small 125ml glass of wine is typically about 1.5 units and a pint of beer, lager or cider is usually 2-2.5 units.

It seems that repeated binge drinking - heavy drinking in one session, often leading to drunkenness - is particularly harmful. Binge drinking is dangerous because it raises the amount of alcohol in the blood to a high level very quickly.

This increased risk of dementia is greatest at higher levels of alcohol consumption - the more you drink, the higher your risk. But you do not need to be an alcoholic or get drunk often to be at increased risk of developing dementia. Regularly drinking even a little above recommended levels probably increases your risk. It also increases your risk of other conditions such as stroke, heart and liver disease, and cancer.

Regularly drinking above recommended limits is seen as one risk factor that contributes towards dementia, rather than being a direct cause. Other lifestyle risk factors that raise a person's chances of developing dementia include smoking, lack of exercise and unhealthy diet. As explained below, regularly drinking at much higher levels than recommended can directly cause problems similar to dementia and so is different.

If you are concerned that you or someone you know is drinking too much alcohol and might need help, see the GP for advice. There are other organisations and charities that also provide support and advice for people with alcohol problems and their families (see 'Other useful organisations').