Heavy drinking sustained over a long period can cause a deficiency in Thiamine, or Vitamin B1, in the body. If this deficiency is not reversed or halted, it can progress into Korsakoff’s syndrome.
The lack of thiamine in the system occurs due to a combination of poor dietary habits and an inflammation of the stomach lining characteristic of alcohol abuse.
The main indicator of Korsakoff’s syndrome is memory loss or memory alteration. Events after the onset of the disease may not be remembered at all and long-term memories distorted. The ensuing confusion makes learning new skills very difficult and retention of information low.
Characteristic of Korsakoff’s syndrome is a distinct lack of insight into the disease itself. Rather than worry about the rapidly worsening symptoms, sufferers often do not realise that they have a condition at all. This state of involuntary denial often couples with a tendency to confabulate, or unwittingly lie to fill the gaping holes in the memory. For instance; a sufferer of Korsakoff’s may confidently describe a recent sailing trip, while they have been in supervised care the entire time. These confabulations often reflect actual events, as opposed to being delusions, so Korsakoff’s is often referred to as a delusory affliction. This is not the case, however, and Korsakoff’s does not respond to antipsychotic drugs.
Usually affecting men between 45 and 65 years old, Korsakoff’s has a very gradual onset and can be effectively treated with abstinence from alcohol, improved diet and medication. The precursor to Korsakoff’s, Wernicke’s’ encephalopathy has a rapid onset characterised by a loss of motor skills and either jerky movements or paralysis of the muscles surrounding the eye. This too can be treated effectively if diagnosed early.
Recovery rates from Korsakoff’s depend on quick diagnosis. 25% of sufferers recover well, the following 25% recover well but take very much longer to do so. The other 50% either make no recovery at all or deteriorate further, though this is usually due to a refusal to abstain from alcohol and improve their diet.
It is very important for a person to get help overcoming alcohol use disorder, especially before they develop chronic conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. The best process for most people is to get professional help to safely detox from alcohol and then progress into a complete rehabilitation programme.
Rehabilitation programmes provide individual and group therapy, and sometimes family therapy. These therapies help the person understand the sources of their alcohol addiction and develop better coping mechanisms to deal with cravings and stress.
While some effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may be permanent, the best way to avoid further damage is to stop drinking safely, with professional help, and to embrace a life in recovery.