How Does 'Shameless' Depict Alcohol-Induced Dementia?

The television show "Shameless" has long been one that I enjoy, the U.S. version that is, though I am curious about the UK one. I watched it every Sunday when new episodes were airing and I lived with my parents or had access to the premium cable channel it was on. Eventually, though, I lost access to the channel and fell behind.

Spoiler alert, incoming!

Enter stage right and the good ol' pandemic keeping everyone at home, I was recently taken down by an ugly cold and thus had an opportunity to finish out the series.

One of the things that the show writers tackled at the ending season was alcohol-induced dementia. I was curious about this, so I thought I'd look into it. Here's what I found.

Some background

Throughout the entire 11 seasons of Shameless, viewers watch as the father, played by William H. Macy, Frank, finds ever craftier ways to maintain his addictive lifestyle. We also watch him go through a wealth of medical issues as a result of his drinking, such as a liver transplant, not to mention the various scrapes and stumbles he gets himself into as a result of intoxication.

Bottom line: Frank is no stranger to the hospital or to medical situations throughout the show.

Alcohol-induced dementia

The first thing I wanted to ensure is that this is a real medical condition, not one cooked up in a writer's room. So, I went into it a bit skeptically. And I turned to web-based databases of scholarly works to find the answers I sought.

Is it real?

The International Classification of Diseases 11th edition (ICD-11) has provided a code, or electronic means for tracking and providing compensation to medical providers, for mental conditions related to alcohol consumptions, including dementia and I found this information on a World Health Organization global status report on alcohol. Given these official means of tracking alcohol-induced dementia, my skepticism is no longer.

How does this happen?

Essentially the body is injured through the stress of consistent alcohol overload, and a number of things that contribute to cognitive decline happen as a result. The risk of Alzheimer's disease can also increase in those who drink excessively and have a specific Alzheimer's-linked gene.1

What does it look like?

Alcohol-induced dementia in the same way it describes dementia, of which Alzheimer's disease is one type. Therefore, symptoms include memory problems, attention problems, issues with communicating, judgment, and problem-solving, to name a few.1

The Alzheimer's Association does not specifically break out alcohol-induced dementia among the dementias it educates on. However, it links alcohol use with Korsakoff syndrome, a form of dementia, and also stipulates that it's not the only way that misuse of alcohol can be linked to cognitive decline.3

Is the depiction credible?

Based on the information that I found here, my own experiences with my loved one, and 11 seasons watching the character, Frank, I think the show does a good job of depicting how dementia can affect a person. The character gets lost among his frequent surroundings, he re-traces his steps and has conversations with people multiple times without realizing it, and he generally does his best to try to live his life while his mind fails him.

Discussion and, eventually, a cure

So, how can we relate to this depiction of a form of dementia? As an advocate, I understand that art is an excellent way to raise awareness of a disease or condition, however, there is a significant portion of the time where pop culture can get it wrong.

I'm grateful that those involved with this production took the time to educate themselves in their portrayal. I hope to continue to see dementia as a topic among various art forms so that the resulting discussions may help us get closer to a coveted cure.

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