My friend’s dad has developed alcohol-related dementia that is caused by Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Can you tell me about this syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a neurological disorder that is typically associated with chronic alcoholism, yet could also be associated with malnutrition, a B vitamin deficiency or other nutritional deficiencies.

The syndrome is often under-reported and under-diagnosed. WKS appears to be the only distinct disease that causes alcohol-related dementia. Its symptoms include confusion, apathy, short-term memory impairment, agitation, weakness in limbs or lack of muscle coordination, an unsteady gait and a diminished sense of smell. An estimated 80 percent of individuals with WKS continue to have chronic memory issues.

WKS is easily missed as a diagnosis. At its most severe stage, WKS can reveal skin changes and a red “beefy” tongue, changes in the brain and enlarged ventricles.

It is very important that a physician perform a thorough medical history, including information regarding the individual’s daily consumption of alcohol. According to information from the Family Caregiving Alliance, the criteria of diagnosing alcohol-related dementia (not strictly WKS) recommends that the diagnosis should be made at least 60 days after the last exposure to alcohol. A significant alcohol history would include an average of 35 drinks per week for men and 28 for women for at least five years. The period of this significant drinking must be within three years of the onset of dementia. When WKS is not alcohol-related, the doctor might investigate severe malnutrition, impaired intestinal absorption of thiamine or even anorexia.

If found early enough, WKS is a preventable, treatable disease. Thiamine replacement therapy, accompanied by other vitamins can be administered. If alcoholic consumption stops and treatment is properly administered, individuals in early stage WKS can expect recovery and can be capable of learning simple, repetitive tasks.

But, the confusion and memory impairment may take some time to subside, unless significant damage to the brain is found to be irreversible, then the problems could be last.The affected individual should abstain from alcohol, follow a good nutrition plan with adequate thiamine intake, even though problems may continue. Family members should enlist the help and support of mental health professionals, especially for guidance in assisting their loved one to stop drinking.

Contact Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, Director of Services at Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, (225) 334-7494, advice@alzbr.org, or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.