What are the long-term health consequences of using alcohol?
Years of heavy drinking can cause major, permanent damage to your body. The type and extent of damage that alcohol causes depends on many factors, including the duration and severity of the abuse. The gender and age of the drinker also come into play.
Men are more likely than women to develop an alcohol abuse or dependence problem. In fact, two-thirds of alcohol-abusing or alcohol-dependent individuals are men.
Interestingly, even though they make up only a third of problem drinkers, women experience more alcohol-related diseases than men; they experience greater physical damage after fewer years of heavy drinking; and those diseases progress more rapidly in women than in men. Female alcoholics have death rates 50 to 100 percent higher than those of male alcoholics. Liver disease in particular is more rapidly severe in women.
Alcohol is also especially dangerous for young people. Recent brain imaging studies in teens and young adults who drank heavily have shown shrinkage in an area of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning, which indicates that these young people’s ability to learn and remember suffers. Alcohol can also prevent teens from growing to full-size. Heavy drinking in teens has been shown to interfere with muscle and bone growth. In addition, people who drink as teenagers have a greater chance of osteoporosis later in life.
Mixing alcohol with other drugs, including acetaminophen (Tylenol,) heroin, cocaine, and barbiturates doubles the damaging effects of alcohol. This can cause slowed breathing, heart attack, and death.
The physical damage caused by heavy drinking includes:
- Birth Defects — Drinking any alcohol while pregnant can do severe, permanent damage to the child. A woman who could be pregnant must not drink any alcohol!
- Alcohol use during pregnancy is the #1 cause of nonhereditary mental retardation.
- The child may exhibit lifelonghyperactive behavior and learning disabilities.
- Liver Damage — The liver processes nutrients and filters the blood, among other things. The liver suffers the most life-threatening damage from alcohol:
- Fatty liver — Accumulation of fat in the liver slows its function.
- Alcoholic hepatitis — Liver cells swell and cause blockage. This is 10 —30% fatal.
- Cirrhosis — Heavy scarring of the liver prevents bloodflow. Cirrhosis is usually fatal.
- Liver cancer.
- Pancreas Damage — The pancreas helps to regulate the body's blood sugar levels by producing insulin, and has a role in digesting the food we eat.
- Pancreatitis — Inflammation of the pancreas causes severe abdominal pain, unwanted weight loss, and can cause death.
- Heart Disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure.)
- Enlarged heart — cannot be repaired.
- Coronary heart disease — narrowed arteries lead to heart attack and death.
- Irregular heartbeat, which can lead to heart attack and death.
- Decreased bloodflow to the arms and legs.
- Stroke — Blocked bloodflow to the brain or bleeding in the brain. Stroke is a major killer.
- Bone Damage
- The rapid bone growth that should be taking place in the teenage years is limited by alcohol.
- Older people who have been heavy drinkers suffer from severe back pain, spine deformity, and increased risk of wrist and hip fractures caused by osteoporosis.
- Cancer — Alcoholism may increase a person’s chances of having any of the following cancers:
- Mouth, pharynx, and esophagus.
- Pancreas and liver.
- Colon and rectum.
- Brain Damage
- Lowered cognitive (thinking) abilities–even with moderate drinking!
- Destruction of brain cells, producing brain deterioration and atrophy (shrinking.)
- Mental disorders: increased aggression, antisocial behavior, depression, and anxiety.
- Heavy drinkers have more accidental injuries due to damage to the sense of balance.
Other health problems caused by drinking alcohol:
- Weakened vision.
- Malnutrition (because heavy drinkers often drink rather than eat.)
- Water retention (resulting in weight gain and bloating.)
- Skin disorders (such as middle-age acne.)
- Dilated blood vessels near the skin causing "brandy nose."
- Heartburn, nausea, gastritis, and ulcers.
- Poor digestion and inflammation of the small and large intestines.
- Sexual problems in men and women.
- Reduced sperm count, less motile (active and quick) sperm, and abnormal sperm cells.
- Menstrual difficulties, irregular or absent cycles, and decreased fertility.
- Early menopause.