Korsakoff’s Syndrome

Alcohol Triggers Dementia  Dr Winnie Lim Khoo

Alcohol-related dementia is often called Korsakoff’s syndrome. It can occur in people who have regularly consumed a large amount of alcohol. Korsakoff’s syndrome is caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) in the body, which affects the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Around 10 per cent of dementias in younger people are alcohol-related.

Korsakoff’s syndrome is a brain disorder usually associated with heavy alcoholconsumption over a long period. Although Korsakoff’s syndrome is not strictly speaking a dementia, people with the condition experience loss of short-term memory. This factsheet outlines the causes, symptoms and treatment of the syndrome. This factsheet also explains the possible relationship between Korsakoff’s syndrome and ‘alcohol related dementia’.

People who drink excessive amounts of alcohol are often thiamine deficient. This is because:

  • many heavy drinkers have poor eating habits and their diet does not contain essential vitamins
  • alcohol can interfere with the conversion of thiamine into the active form of the vitamin (thiamine pyrophosphate)
  • alcohol can inflame the stomach lining, cause frequent vomiting and make it difficult for the body to absorb the key vitamins it receives. Alcohol also makes it harder for the liver to store vitamins.
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