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Alarming: Binge drinking leading to alcohol-induced dementia during pandemic

Researchers are finding more people turning to alcohol to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 6:00 PM CDT
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Wisconsin’s reputation when it comes to drinking alcohol is no secret. Studies have labeled some of our cities as the biggest drinking spots in the United States.

Researchers are finding more people turning to alcohol to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s leading to dementia diagnoses at young ages. First Alert Investigation discovered a growing number of people in Northeast Wisconsin developing an often irreversible medical condition.

When people think about dementia, they often associate it with Alzheimer’s disease and the elderly. However, this is alcohol-induced dementia. As we investigated a surge in elder abuse and neglect this week, we found the form of dementia is revealing itself in young people at an alarming rate.

Gena Schupp never expected to discover this condition in her work as supervisor of Brown County Adult Protective Services.

“We’re seeing people in their forties with dementia that when we break it down and have the assessments done, it’s due to alcohol,” says Schupp. “The alcohol is affecting their brain, just like dementia.”

Schupp’s team investigates elder abuse and neglect. Since the pandemic hit, their investigations have led them to the alcohol-induced dementia cases.

“It’s dementia but it comes from something they’ve done,” Schupp.

It’s not just a drink here or there. It’s daily binge drinking over a long period of time. Schupp believes the pandemic makes it exponentially worse.

“That is really on the rise. Again, people are secluded. I think they’re drinking more,” says Schupp.

Because it is new, Schupp cannot put a number to cases of alcohol-induced dementia. First Alert Investigation found little recent research on the topic.

A report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, published findings eight years ago saying more research is needed. There was a limited investigation on what happens to the brain. It reads “social isolation appears to be a significant factor.”

Schupp says people need to know more about the condition so it can be diagnosed correctly and in a more timely way.

That’s where she’s seeing the biggest problem.

“A lot of times it’ll be misdiagnosed as mental health, because the person is so young, no one’s looking for dementia diagnosis,” Schupp says. “Mental health is treatable. There’s medications that improve mental health. Dementia, there’s no medications that are going to stop the progression.”

So what does it do to the brain? We found details released by the Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom. Findings state it can affect a person’s mood and balance, even when sober. Scans will show areas of the brain have shrunk, according to the research.

In Northeast Wisconsin, investigators are finding people who seem more confused. They’re getting into traffic accidents and lack ability to reason.

“For example, if I said to you what does a truck and a bicycle have in common? That cognitive ability to think about that... they lose that. Some people, it advances faster than others,” says Schupp.

As it worsens, people with alcohol-induced dementia need an increased amount of care similar to those living with Alzheimer’s.

In Brown County, finding those patients a place to live is next to impossible.

“Someone in their forties would not be appropriate for a nursing home,” says Schupp. “They tend to be more aggressive and they still, despite the fact they have alcohol-induced dementia, they’re still alcohol seeking. So those people are very difficult to find placements for because again, they tend to be a little younger.”

Until the condition is more readily diagnosed, Schupp believes more families will face the problem.

There’s still not a lot of data about the permanence of the condition. Research shows there’s a chance stopping drinking alcohol will slow it, but it’s incredibly rare for dementia to be reversed.

MORE RESOURCES:

https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/links-between-alcohol-and-dementia

https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/dementia/dementiaresources.htm

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