Long-Term Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse

It’s commonly assumed that drugs are deemed legal or illegal based on the specific damage these substances can cause in people who use them. Under this theory, substances that are incredibly dangerous are always deemed illegal, while substances that are safe to use are always legal. It’s a nice theory, but it tends to break down when alcohol enters the picture. While there is some evidence that suggests moderate consumption of alcohol benefits some people, those who abuse alcohol may be exposing themselves to a dangerous substance that could impact their long-term health. This is a substance that is far from safe for everyone, although it is legal.

Defining Abuse

Nightly newscasts are often filled with stories that summarize medical research on alcohol. Many of these stories seem to suggest that alcohol can be beneficial for human health. For example, according to a summary of studies published in the journal Alcohol Research and Health, a study published in 1997 found that the incidence of coronary heart disease in men who drank alcohol was lower than in men who did not drink alcohol. Studies like this can be deceptive, however, as these studies are often measuring the impact of very small amounts of alcohol. The researchers may not ask their subjects to binge drink each and every day. Instead, researchers might ask subjects to drink one or two glasses of wine or beer a night. At these moderate levels, alcohol might be beneficial for some portions of human health. People who abuse alcohol are drinking much more, however, and that overindulgence might be responsible for the health problems they face.

According to an article published by the Mayo Clinic, only moderate drinking is considered even remotely beneficial for human health, and moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink a day for women, and up to two drinks a day for a man. People who abuse alcohol may drink much more than this each day, or they may drink extremely large amounts of alcohol in one sitting, and then refrain from alcohol for the following days. Either form of drinking is considered alcohol abuse, and it can cause a variety of serious health problems.
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Digestive Disorders

Stomach and Alcohol AbusePeople who drink alcoholic beverages with no mixers may report that the drinks are bitter or that they seem to burn down the throat when they’re swallowed. Alcohol is caustic, and that burning sensation is due to tissue damage. While the burning sensation may not persist if the person keeps drinking, the alcohol continues to react with tissues as it is digested, and damage can occur as a result. For example, according to a study published in Gut: An International Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, alcohol consumption can cause the lining of the stomach to swell. This condition, known as chronic gastritis, may not cause any symptoms for the person who has it, but an inflamed stomach may not be able to process food efficiently or absorb vitamins appropriately. People who abuse alcohol may develop severe nutritional deficiencies as a result.

In an attempt to correct the damage and respond to the swollen tissues, the body may begin to replace cells at a very rapid rate, churning out new cell after new cell in the hopes of containing the problem and restoring the system to a natural state. Unfortunately, tissues that are constantly under repair are tissues that can also be vulnerable to cancer. Each time the cell replicates, small errors in coding are made, and these can all add up to cancerous tumors.

Cancers of the stomach are quite possible due to alcohol abuse, but cancers often develop in other parts of the digestive tract as well, including the:

  • Esophagus
  • Mouth
  • Larynx
  • Pharynx

According to the Bowless Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2 to 4 percent of all cancer cases are related to alcohol. Abusing alcohol exposes sensitive tissues to irritating substances, and cancer can quickly follow.
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Liver Damage

Alcohol is removed from the body through the hard work of the liver. This organ is responsible for converting the harmful ingredients in alcohol into ingredients that aren’t quite so damaging, and people who drink large amounts of alcohol are placing an enormous amount of stress on their livers. As a result, their livers can become scarred with tissue that is inflexible and tough, or the liver can also begin to accumulate cells that are full of fat. A liver damaged in this way cannot function properly, and it might also be more vulnerable to damage from disease.

The hepatitis C infection can also cause an immense amount of liver scarring, but people who drink high amounts of alcohol might experience more damage from the disease than people who do not drink large amounts of alcohol. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs heavy drinkers have more than twice the amount of liver scarring from hepatitis C, when compared to light drinkers or people who don’t drink alcohol at all. People who have this high amount of scarring might progress to cirrhosis of the liver, in which the liver is so scarred and inflexible that it cannot function properly. People with this condition often need to access dialysis, sometimes daily, in order to stay alive.

In order to determine the risk of drinking alcohol, researchers compared the rates of dementia in people who drank alcohol at different levels. According to the results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, higher rates of drinking were associated with higher rates of dementia. The researchers explained their findings using odds ratios, as follows:

  • Fewer than one drink per week: ratio 0.65
  • One to six drinks per week: ratio of 0.46
  • Seven to 13 drinks: ratio of 0.69
  • Fourteen or more drinks: ratio 1.22

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Dementia and Mental Changes

People under the influence can seem lost and forgetful, repeating phrases over and over again and losing their train of thought when they speak. This can be difficult to endure while the person is drunk, but people who drink heavily may develop similar symptoms later in life, and those symptoms don’t tend to dissipate when they are sober. Dementia can occur due to alcohol abuse, especially if people have specific genetic markers that are associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

These results indicate that moderate levels of drinking could be protective, but jumping above moderate levels even a small amount resulted in a dramatic increase in the odds of dementia, and heavy drinkers were at an amazing risk for the disorder.

Heavy drinking has also been associated with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. It’s possible that these disorders are due to damage the brain is undergoing due to alcohol abuse, but it’s also possible that these mental health concerns arise because the people feel depressed and guilty about how much they drink, and how they behave when they are drunk. People with these sorts of mental health concerns might turn to drinking in order to feel better, however, and this can intensify the original drinking patterns that led to the original feelings of depression.
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Bone Health

bone healthAlcohol can change the chemistry of the blood, and women who drink large amounts of alcohol can do a large amount of damage to their bones. Every moment of the day, the bones are breaking down and then building back up again, over and over. People who drink large amounts of alcohol can disturb this process, allowing their bodies to break down bone at accelerated rates, and the body is then unable to build bone back up at the same speed. According to research highlighted on National Public Radio, post-menopausal women who drink moderately might protect their bones from loss, but these results can only be applied to this specific age group of women, and these same women might do more damage to their bones if they begin drinking heavily. The researchers stress that the results are still preliminary, and that heavy alcohol consumption often does much more damage in people of almost every age group.

Bones that are porous, weak and fragile can quickly break, even when they’re placed under a small amount of stress. Women might develop complicated fractures in their wrists or ankles due to a fall, and heavy drinkers might fall during an alcoholic binge. Some women even lose height, as the bones in their spine begin to compress due to bone loss. Older people who fall may break the large bones in the hips, and these complicated fractures often result in long hospital stays and a significant loss of freedom and mobility. Some people never recover from these devastating fractures.
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Alcoholic beverages like martinis and margaritas often contain large amounts of sugars and sweeteners. Even drinks like wine and beer have huge amounts of calories when compared to drinks like water or tea. People who drink alcohol may also crave sweet or salty foods to go along with their drinks, and these foods may also be quite high in calories. People who drink heavily may consume thousands of extra calories each and every day, and that might cause them to pack on the pounds.

Carrying around additional weight can put excess strain on the heart, as it has much more tissue to sustain and oxygenate. Excess weight can also place people at risk for diabetes, as the kidneys and the pancreas cannot keep up with the demands placed upon them. Extra weight can also place undue stress on the joints and the bones, making even walking from place to place painful.
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What to Do

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 79,000 deaths are attributable to disproportionate alcohol use in the United States. There’s no question that alcohol abuse is dangerous, and that people who drink to excess should stop doing so as soon as they can. While some people can learn to moderate their alcohol intake with a few counseling sessions and strict adherence to a new lifestyle, other people will never be able to develop a healthy relationship to alcohol, and they might need help in order to stop drinking altogether. At Axis, we specialize in providing help to people who struggle with addictions, and we would love to discuss our program with you in detail. If you have an addiction issue, please contact us today to find out more about how we can help.

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