Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) isn’t one of the medical conditions that most people associate with long-term alcohol abuse. The majority of people have never even heard of this condition until they or someone they know gets it.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is sometimes referred to as alcohol-related dementia or “wet brain.” It is actually two separate conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome, which is also called Korsakoff’s psychosis. Usually, people develop the first condition prior to the second.
How alcohol affects B1 levels
People who drink an excessive amount of alcohol can develop a thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency. That’s because the alcohol prevents the liver from storing the vitamin. A serious shortage of B1 can affect multiple organ systems – but primarily the brain.
The condition can be treated if caught in time. If the cause is alcohol-related, abstaining from alcohol, which may require a treatment program, is necessary. If left untreated, it can cause serious cognitive impairment, nerve damage, heart damage and more. It can cause serious permanent damage to the body that can eventually be fatal.
There are other causes of WKS, including gastric or colon cancer or other problems with the intestines or stomach that can prevent the body from absorbing nutrients properly. Bariatric surgery can also cause it. Malnutrition is a leading cause, although typically not in developed countries.
Timely diagnosis is key
If a doctor notes a thiamine deficiency and none of those causes above applies, it’s probably time to start testing for other indications of alcohol abuse if a patient doesn’t acknowledge a drinking problem. Many people – even those who don’t drink excessively — are less than honest with their doctors about their level of alcohol intake.
If you believe that your condition or that of a loved one should have been diagnosed sooner and that a timely diagnosis would have led to a different outcome, it’s worth exploring whether you have grounds for medical malpractice or wrongful death claim.