top of page
  • Kristina Walker

Series: What's Under the Dementia Umbrella?

Part 6: Beriberi Disease

In this series we are taking an in-depth look at the various types of dementia and how to improve treatment in a long-term care setting. There are several lesser known dementias affecting our seniors. As part of their care team we need to educate ourselves on how to better understand and meet their needs.

What is Beriberi disease?

Beriberi is a condition that develops due to a lack of thiamine. Prisoners of war commonly came down with beriberi disease due to the lack of nutrients in their diet.

There are two types of Beriberi. Wet beriberi damages the heart and circulatory system while dry beriberi affects nerves and muscles, eventually leading to muscle paralysis. Without treatment, both wet and dry can cause death.

Beriberi presents differently, depending on whether a patient has wet or dry. Patients with wet beriberi can experience shortness of breath (both during exercise and upon waking up in the morning), rapid heart rate and swelling in the lower legs. Patients with dry beriberi can experience a decrease in muscle function, especially in the lower legs, as well as pain, mental confusion, involuntary eye movement, difficulty with speech, tingling or numbness in hands and feet, vomiting and paralysis.

Beriberi is associated with Wernicke-Karsakoff syndrome in extreme cases. We’ll cover WKS in more detail in a few weeks.

Causes and Treatment

Generally, patients with a diet of thiamine-rich foods have a low risk of developing beriberi. Beans, vegetables, meat and whole grains are all high in thiamine. Populations most at risk for this condition include those whose diet consists of a lot of unenriched foods low in thiamine, such as white rice. Beriberi is most commonly found in people with alcoholism. While genetics are a possible cause, genetic beriberi is rare.

People with an increased need for thiamine include:

  • Pregnant women;

  • Breast-feeding mothers;

  • Anybody with an overly active thyroid (hyperthyroidism);

  • People experiencing prolonged diarrhea or using diuretics;

  • Infants drinking formula or breast milk low in thiamine;

  • Dialysis patients.

A diagnosis of beriberi requires a series of blood, urine and neurological tests that look for the signs of beriberi disease. Patients with beriberi can expect to receive thiamine supplements. In severe cases, thiamine can be delivered intravenously. Patients in the early stages whose beriberi is caught and treated early have a very good chance of recovering quickly and even reversing damage already done to their heart and nerves. The outlook for patients whose condition progresses to Wenicke-Korsakoff disease do not have such a positive outlook.

We’ll take a closer look at WKS next week. You can find more information about beriberi disease from as well as this article from the New York Times.

bottom of page