Have you ever really thought about the numerous health problems that can result from long-term or heavy alcohol abuse? Here is an eye-opening examination of how chronic alcoholism can have serious – and perhaps permanent – consequences to your physical and mental health.
In his book, Pilgrims, the Reverend Cecil Newell wrote, “Far more people have had their health destroyed by intemperate drinking than those whose health has benefited from it… And sadly, the damage people do to themselves also affects others in a very serious way.”
Alcohol Abuse and the Risk of Early Death
“It’s killing people before they should be dying. These deaths are all 100 percent preventable.”
~ Maristela Monteiro, Senior Advisor on Alcohol and Substance Abuse, Pan American Health Organization
Every year, approximately 88,000 people in the United States die because of alcohol-related causes. And, although that IS a tragedy, the sheer number of years of life that are lost because of alcoholism is almost incomprehensible.
Annually, alcohol steals 2,570,870 years of life.
Let that number sink in for just a moment. For lack of a better term, that number is extremely… sobering.
And consider the implications a different way – for about 1 in 10 people, their lifespan is shortened by 30 years because of problematic drinking. In fact, heavy drinking is the #4 cause of preventable death in this country.
Male alcohol abusers are especially at risk – they suffer 77% of alcohol-involved deaths.
Alcohol Abuse and Brain Size
“There was a significant negative linear relationship between alcohol consumption and total cerebral brain volume…The public health effect of this study gives a clear message about the possible dangers of drinking alcohol.”
~ Carol Ann Paul, M.S.
According to a Wellesley College study, the more alcohol a person drinks, the smaller their total brain volume becomes. This brain shrinkage was evident in people who drank as few as 14 drinks per week, or “just” 2 per day.
Alcohol Abuse and Brain Cell Function
“We’ve found a potential mechanism for alcohol’s harmful effects on the hippocampus and other brain regions associated with executive function and memory…Our results demonstrate that in addition to causing existing cells to degenerate, excessive alcohol keeps new stem cells from forming.”
~ Dr. Chitra Mandyam, PhD, Scripps Research Institute, San Diego
A 2012 article published in Neuroscience determined that daily drinking – even “moderate” consumption – interfered with the ability of the hippocampus to either produce or retain new brain cells, lowering production by nearly 40%.
Alcohol Abuse and Short-Term Memory Loss
“… there’s also a hidden cost of alcohol abuse, given the mounting evidence that alcohol abuse can also impact on cognition, later in life.”
~ Dr. Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development, Alzheimer’s Society
A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry reported that adults in middle-aged who have a personal history of problematic drinking, have a DOUBLED likelihood of experiencing severe memory loss later in life.
Alcoholism and Cognitive Impairment
“This study shows that older people keep drinking along the life span. Taking into consideration that drinking may lead to falls and to cognitive impairment when heavy use is the case, this study creates important awareness about this issue.”
~ Dr. Jerson Laks, Associate Professor, State University of Rio de Janeiro, researcher with the Brazilian National Committee for Research
Published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, a 2010 study of alcohol use among the elderly determined that heavy drinking is linked to greater cognitive problems than mild or moderate use, especially among women.
Similarly, in 2014, research was published in Neurology reporting that middle-aged men who consume more than two-and-a-half alcoholic drinks a day experience a significantly accelerated rate of mental decline. Over a 10-year span, these individuals can suffer an added 6 years of mental decline.
Alcoholism and Wet Brain Syndrome
“Alcohol is a toxin that clearly can injure or kill brain cells.”
~ Dr. Suzanne de la Monte, Professor of Pathology/Neuropathology and Clinical Neuroscience, Rhode Island Hospital and the Warren Alpert School of Medicine, Brown University
Excessive drinking leads to nutritional deficiencies – as many as 8 out of 10 alcoholics are deficient in thiamine, directly leading to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, also known as “wet brain”. This condition is marked by an unsteady, staggering gait, paralysis of movements, drowsiness, confusion, and mental disturbance. It is incurable and eventually fatal.
Excessive Drinking and Immune Disorders
“…there is less awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects in other areas, such as the immune system.”
~ Dr. Elizabeth Kovacs, PhD, Director, Loyola University Alcohol Research Program.
In the December 2014 issue of Alcohol, research From the Loyola University Health System concluded that just one incident of binge-drinking can affect the immune system and increase vulnerability to disease. Of special relevance, this immune impairment can happen in as little as 20 minutes.
Heavy Drinking and Cellular Aging
“Our study showed that alcoholic patients have a shortened telomere length, which means that heavy drinking causes biological aging at a cellular level…awareness of this fact provides important information necessary for people to live healthier.”
~ Dr. Naruhisa Yamaki, M.D., Clinical Fellow, Kobe University Graduate School of Medicine
A brand-new study presented June 2017 at the 40th annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism revealed that alcoholics experience shorter telomere lengths, which places them at heightened risk for age-related conditions such as dementia, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. In other words, the more a person drinks, the faster their cells age.
Alcohol and Your Skin
“Alcohol is a diuretic…(it) hinders the production of the hormone vasopressin. That hormone helps you reabsorb water. So alcohol is kind of a double whammy, in that it’s forcing out water and making it harder for your body to rehydrate itself.”
~ Dr. Whitney Bowe, MD, dermatologist
Alcohol abuse hastens skin aging and promotes a sallow, wrinkled appearance. Dehydration, liver disease, an impaired immune system, and nutritional deficiency can lead to a number of skin problems:
- Spider telangiectasis—burst blood vessels
- Palmar erythema—reddening of the palms
- Caput medusa—distended veins across the abdomen
- Jaundice—yellowing of the skin
- Hyperpigmentation—darkening around the eyes and mouth
- Porphyria cutanea tarda—extreme sensitivity to sunlight, characterized by fragile skin, blisters, scarring, and abnormal hair growth
- Rosacea—redness, pimples, and swelling of small blood vessels
- Rhinophyma—an enlarged, bulbous nose
- Psoriasis—red, itchy, scaly skin—erythrodermic psoriasis can be fatal
- Eczema—inflammation of the skin
- Urticaria—a burning rash (“hives”)
- Tinea corporis—a fungal infection marked by raised red rings in a central area (“ringworm”)
Alcohol and Oral Health
Typically, alcohol-related oral health problems are caused by nutritional deficiencies, compromised immunity, and poor oral hygiene.
- Cheilitis—inflammation of the lips and the skin around the lips
- Gingivitis—swollen gums
- Tooth decay
- Swollen tongue—caused by Vitamin B deficiency
- Lingua villosa nigra—elongated and discolored papillae of the tongue (“black hairy tongue”)
Heavy Drinking and Muscle Breakdown
“Muscle weakness is by far the most frequent symptom of alcoholic myopathy, causing difficulties in rising from a chair or in climbing a staircase.”
~ Jan W. Wijnia, Slingedael Korsakoff Center
40% – 60% of alcoholics suffer from myopathy, a condition characterized by muscle weakness, wasting, and malfunction. A 2012 review suggests that part of the reason may be due to the Vitamin D deficiency commonly experienced by chronic drinkers.
Alcohol Abuse and Nerve Damage
Prolonged alcohol abuse and nutritional deficiency can lead to nerve degeneration and a condition known as alcoholic polyneuropathy. Also called “alcohol leg”, this is a neurological disorder characterized by nerve pain and muscle weakness.
The symptoms begin as “pins and needles” tingling in the feet, progressing next to the hands. Other symptoms include:
- Heat intolerance
- Weight loss
- Pain—either constant or piercing
- Erectile dysfunction
- Difficulty urinating
- Poor reflexes
- Loss of coordination
- Difficulty swallowing
- Speech impairment
Alcoholism and Heart Disease
“The discoveries…show that binge drinkers may have increased risk of developing atherosclerosis and experiencing weight gain. Because obesity is also a risk factor for disease, binge drinking may have a strong negative impact on cardiovascular health.”
~ Dr. Lucy Liaw, PhD, Founders Affiliate Research Committee Chair
Not only are chronic drinkers at risk of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, people who engage in regular binge-drinking are more likely to develop atherosclerosis – a narrowing and hardening of the arteries.
In animal tests where laboratory mice were given the equivalent of 7 drinks a night, 2 nights a week – representative of weekend binging – their levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol rose by 20%. In humans, every 10% increase in LDL levels means a 20% increased risk of atherosclerosis.
Drinking and High Blood Pressure
“This study shows that alcohol intake may increase blood pressure to a much greater extent, even among moderate drinkers, than previously thought.”
~ Dr. Sarah Lewis, University of Bristol, Department of Social Medicine
A 2008 analysis of previous observational studies concluded that alcohol intake can be tied to hypertension. This increases the risk of stroke, with such complications as:
- Brain damage
- Neurological impairment
- Difficulty in movement
- Loss of sensation
- Speech problems
- Cognitive or memory damage
- Emotional disorders
Heavy Drinking and Bone Loss
“We found that the expressions of certain genes important for maintaining bone integrity are disturbed by alcohol exposure…Of course, the best way to prevent alcohol-induced bone loss is to not drink or to drink moderately.”
~ Dr. John Callaci, PhD, Bone Biologist and Assistant Professor, Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine, Department of Orthopedic Surgery and Rehabilitation
A 2005 article in Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research reported that chronic alcohol abuse can cause lower bone mass, decreased bone formation, increased risk of fracture, and delayed healing after injury.
Alcoholism and Pancreatitis
“…this may sensitize the pancreas to a secondary insult, predisposing it to the development of pancreatitis, and other pancreatic diseases.”
~ Dr. Hamid Said, PhD, University of California
A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Physiology — Cell Physiology indicates that chronic drinking interferes with the ability of the pancreas to absorb Vitamin C. This can potentially predispose the person to pancreatitis – chronic inflammation of the pancreas.
This results in abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and digestive problems. And, because chronic pancreatitis affects the production of insulin, it can lead to Type I Diabetes.
Alcoholism and Type 2 Diabetes
“Insulin resistance has emerged as a key metabolic defect leading to Type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease (CAD). Someone who regularly binge drinks even once a week, over many years, may remain in an insulin-resistant state for an extended period of time, potentially years.”
~ Dr. Christoph Buettner, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine (Endocrinology, Diabetes and Bone Disease), Diabetes Obesity and Metabolism Institute, Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai Medical Center
Binge-drinking can cause insulin resistance, according to a 2013 study published in Science Translational Medicine. In addition, alcohol causes inflammation of the hypothalamus, thereby disrupting insulin-receptor signaling.
Alcohol Abuse and Liver Damage
“For the first time, our study points to a risk difference between drinking daily and drinking five or six days…we can only speculate that the reason may be that daily alcohol exposure worsens liver damage or inhibits liver regeneration.”
~ Dr. Gro Askgaard, MD, Department of Hepatology, Copenhagen University Hospital, Rigshospitalet, and the National Institute of Public Health, University of Southern Denmark, Copenhagen
Processing excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to several manifestations of liver problems:
- Fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Liver fibrosis
A 2016 study recently published in the Journal of Hepatology has added to the understanding of the connection between drinking and cirrhosis of the liver. While scientists have known for a while that the amount of alcohol consumed was important, this is the first time that the role of drinking patterns has been established.
Specifically, researchers concluded that the recent consumption of alcohol, and not the amount of alcohol consumed during one’s lifetime, is the strongest and best predictor of subsequent alcoholic cirrhosis.
Alcohol and Breast Cancer
“There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of alcoholic beverages in humans… Alcoholic beverages are carcinogenic to humans.”
~The International Agency for Research on Cancer
The data from 53 different studies was analyzed, and it was determined that the risk of breast cancer increases 7% for each drink a woman consumes. In other words, women who “only” drink two to three alcoholic beverages a day are at 20% greater risk.
A 2017 article in Time magazine goes even further, saying that women who take 14 or more alcoholic drinks have a 33% higher likelihood of developing breast cancer than women who consume 4 or less.
Alcohol and Colon Cancer
“Our data are the first to show that alcohol turns on certain signals inside a cell that are involved in this critical transition. Cancer cells become dangerous when they metastasize.”
~ Dr. Christopher Forsyth, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry, Rush University Medical Center
After following up with more than 10,000 patients over a 10-year period, researchers at the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine determined that consuming one or more alcoholic beverages a day is linked with a 70% higher risk of colon cancer.
Alcohol and Pancreatic Cancer
“Overall, these findings add to the evidence that heavy alcohol intake is an independent risk factor for pancreatic cancer.”
~ Dr. Susan Gapstur, PhD, M.P.H., Vice President of Epidemiology, American Cancer Society
Heavy drinkers—those who consume 3 or more alcoholic beverages a day – have a 36% greater risk of dying from cancer of the pancreas than non-drinkers, according to the American Cancer Society.
Alcohol and Liver Cancer
“Around three or more drinks per day can be enough to cause liver cancer. Until now we were uncertain about the amount of alcohol likely to lead to liver cancer. But the research reviewed in this report is strong enough, for the first time, to be more specific about this.”
~ Amanda McLean, Director of World Cancer Research Fund UK
After analyzing 34 studies with a total of 8 million patients, the World Cancer Research Fund reports that heavy drinking significantly increases the risk of cancer of the liver. Up to 36% of cases are directly caused by excessive drinking.
Alcohol and Melanoma
“There are many risk factors for melanoma that you cannot change, like family history, hair color, and susceptibility to sunburn. But drinking alcohol is something you can change, so it’s actually good to know that alcohol is related to melanoma as well as other cancers.”
~Dr. Eunyoung Cho, Associate Professor of Dermatology and Epidemiology at Brown University
Every daily drink adds 14% to the risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
People who take 2 daily drinks have only a 2% greater risk of melanoma of the extremities, neck, or head. However, they have a 73% greater likelihood of melanoma of the trunk.
White wine seems to be the worst culprit. The prevailing theory is that, while all alcohol – wine, beer, liquor – contains acetaldehyde, which can damage DNA, wine contains far more of this carcinogen than liquor, or beer. White wines lack the protective antioxidants that are found in red wines.
Alcohol, Smoking, and Cancer
“These studies are interesting but the most important thing for people to know is that smoking and drinking each increase your risk of head and neck cancer, and smoking and drinking together multiply your risk. That means that the cumulative effect is worse than just adding the two risk factors together.”
~ Dr. Tamer Ghanem, MD, PhD, Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit
People who both drink AND smoke are 35 times more likely to develop cancers of the mouth, trachea, esophagus, larynx, or throat. In fact, 75% of ALL head and neck cancers are caused by a combination of alcohol and tobacco use.
There are three interconnected factors that magnify the cancer risk that arises when someone drinks and smokes:
- There are over 5000 chemicals found in cigarettes and tobacco smoke. Up to 60 of them are known or possible carcinogens.
- Alcohol damages the cell DNA of the neck and head and causes cellular changes in the mucous membranes of the mouth.
- Additionally, alcohol acts as a solvent that makes it easier for the carcinogens found in tobacco to enter the cells of the neck and head.
Why are these facts about the cancer risk of combined usage so important?
On average, people who abuse alcohol smoke at a rate that is TRIPLE that of the general population. Up to 95% of alcoholics smoke cigarettes, and 70% are heavy smokers who use more than a pack a day.
More about Drinking and Cancer
“From a cancer prevention perspective, the less you drink, the lower your risk of and alcohol-related cancer and, obviously, if one doesn’t drink at all, then that’s the lowest risk.”
Dr. David Nelson, Director, Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program, US National Cancer Institute
And the risk increases the more the person drinks – 2 out of every 3 alcohol-related cancer deaths occur in individuals who consumed 3 or more drinks per day. But the other third drank “moderately”—less than 1.5 daily drinks.
When Quitting Alcohol Turns Deadly
“When you are young, your body cannot handle alcohol, and when you get old, your mind cannot handle it. Either way, alcohol has its way.”
Considering all of the tremendous havoc that alcohol can read on your health, it’s shocking to learn that it can be dangerous to QUIT alcohol, as well. Alcohol dependence can be so profound that withdrawal is more than just uncomfortable or difficult – it can be extremely dangerous, even fatal.
Chronic alcohol abuse changes the brain. A person addicted to alcohol simply cannot function without liquor in their system. This is NOT a choice.
If alcohol isn’t available or if they try to quit “cold-turkey” on their own, their body goes into a state of shock – within just a few short hours of their last drink. When an alcoholic abruptly stops drinking, there is a hyper-excited “rebound” response from their autonomic and central nervous systems known as withdrawal.
The most dangerous symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal are hallucinations, autonomic instability, and seizures. But the most DEADLY symptom is delirium tremens, also known as “the DTs”.
Without prompt medical treatment, 40% of alcoholics suffering the DTs will die. And even WITH treatment, there remains a 4% chance of death.
Considerations about alcohol withdrawal:
- NEVER stop drinking abruptly.
- ALWAYS quit alcohol only under the strict monitoring of medical professionals, preferably at a reputable residential detox facility.
- DO use prescribed medications to ease your transition from active addiction to actively in recovery.
- Always treat symptoms of alcohol withdrawal as a medical emergency.
What Does all of This Mean?
Despite reports of the protective benefits realized from light drinking, the fact of the matter is this—alcohol ultimately takes more lives than it saves.
It also means that anyone who is genetically or environmentally vulnerable to certain illnesses should not further exacerbate that risk by using alcohol to excess.
Finally, it also means that if you currently abuse alcohol and can’t stop, the best way to protect your future health is to seek specialized professional treatment that can help you regain both your health and your sobriety.