Alcohol-related dementia is an unofficial term used to describe a decline in mental function caused by the habitual, excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes this dementia under a more general heading called “substance/medication-induced major or mild neurocognitive disorder.” In a study presented in September 2013 by Loyola University Chicago, a team of researchers examined the potential effectiveness of fish oil as a protection against alcohol-related dementia. The researchers concluded that a specific substance in fish oil, called DHA, may reduce the risks for this form of dementia by as much as 90 percent.
Alcohol and Dementia
Dementia is the widely used term for declining function in the range of conscious mental activities that make humans distinct from one another and provide grounding in everyday reality. Examples of these activities include the ability to form new memories, the ability to retrieve previously stored memories, the ability to use logical thought processes, the ability to make sensible judgments, the ability to take in and use visual information, the ability to accurately recall and use language, and the ability to comprehend spoken or written communications from other people. The American Psychiatric Association—which creates the standard definitions used by U.S. mental health professionals and a variety of important social institutions—no longer uses the term dementia to officially describe deficits in conscious brain function. Instead, it refers to relatively minor deficits in normal function as “mild neurocognitive disorder,” and uses the term “major neurocognitive disorder” to refer to relatively large deficits.
Alcohol is known for its potential to damage the brain’s conscious functions. Typically, such damage occurs in people who consume large or excessive amounts of alcoholic beverages over extended periods of time. For men, this level of consumption generally involves the intake of three or more standard drinks per day; for women, it generally involves the intake of two or more standard drinks per day. In many cases, alcohol’s effects act as secondary factors to other prominent dementia causes such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia or frontotemporal dementia. However, alcohol consumption may also act as the primary source of a person’s declining mental abilities. One particular form of dementia strongly associated with habitual, excessive alcohol intake is a condition called Korsakoff syndrome.
Fish Oil and DHA
Fish oil is obtained from the flesh of coldwater fish species such as tuna, sardines, bluefish, salmon, mackerel, trout and herring. In addition to direct consumption of these species, you can obtain fish oil from a variety of nonprescription supplements. Among its other ingredients, fish oil contains substances called omega-3 fatty acids, which the body needs to maintain several key aspects of its healthy function. In addition to DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the most prominent omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil-bearing species is a substance known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
DHA’s Potential Effects
In a study presented to the 14th Congress of the European Society for Biomedical Research, the Loyola University Chicago researchers used laboratory testing of rat brain cells to assess DHA’s potential to diminish the impact of alcohol-related dementia. During this testing, they exposed one set of cells to extremely high amounts of alcohol and subsequently exposed that same set of cells to doses of DHA. For comparison’s sake, they also exposed a second set of rat brain cells to excessive amounts of alcohol, but did not follow up this exposure with DHA doses. After observing the results of their experiments, the researchers concluded that the alcohol-exposed brain cells treated with DHA experienced only roughly one-10th of the damage incurred by the alcohol-exposed brain cells not treated with DHA. This finding indicates that DHA provides significant protection against the processes that lead to alcohol-related dementia.
Significance and Considerations
The Loyola University Chicago study is highly preliminary in nature. However, if future research bears out its conclusions, doctors may acquire an important new tool to help them offset the potential brain damage associated with excessive alcohol intake. The study’s authors note that, regardless of the accuracy of their conclusions, the best way to avoid alcohol-related dementia is to avoid consuming alcohol in large amounts. No one should use fish oil to combat dementia, or for any other purpose, without first obtaining the consent of his or her doctor.
Previous findings from the same group of researchers indicate that moderate alcohol consumption may actively reduce an individual’s chances of developing dementia. However, as a general rule, no one should start drinking in order to gain specific, isolated health benefits.