Which patient groups are at highest risk for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS)?

Updated: May 16, 2018
  • Author: Glen L Xiong, MD; Chief Editor: David Bienenfeld, MD  more...
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The condition affects males slightly more frequently than it affects females. Age of onset is evenly distributed from 30-70 years.

Studies have reported Wernicke encephalopathy in the pediatric population, often in association with malignancy. However, because of the prevalent role of alcohol in Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, it is very rarely reported in children. One report describes Wernicke-Korsakoff–like syndrome in a 10-year-old child who contracted herpesvirus encephalitis through an unrelated cord blood transplantation. The symptoms resolved with treatment of the virus, implying it had attacked the mammillothalamic system. [30]

While many clinicians empirically assume that age and the length of alcohol abuse are correlative with the risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, there does not appear to be any controlled study evaluating this. Although studies have compared memory deficits in patients with Alzheimer dementia and Korsakoff syndrome (see the work of Michael D. Kopelman from the 1980s and 1990s), there do not appear to be studies looking at the impact of age-related atrophy or comorbid Alzheimer dementia as risk factors for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

The epidemiology of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome generally follows rates of alcoholism. There do not appear to be studies investigating or suggesting a genetic susceptibility of one racial group or sexual predisposition.

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