The Physical Effects of Long-term Alcohol Abuse  

surgeons performing surgery

The statistics on alcohol abuse in the United State are alarming. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 15.1 million adults over the age of eighteen meet the criteria for an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). In addition, roughly 88,000 people die each year form alcohol related causes, and alcohol-impaired driving incidents cause close to 10,000 deaths per year. More troubling than these raw numbers is the fact that only about 1.8 million of individuals who meet the criteria for an AUD receive appropriate treatment at a specialized facility – less than ten percent.

That’s not all. In 2010, Americans spent an estimated 249 billion dollars on health issues related to alcohol misuse.

Worldwide, the toll of alcohol shows similarly scary numbers:

  • In 2012, alcohol consumption contributed to 3.3 million deaths.
  • In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that alcohol misuse caused over two-hundred diseases and adverse health conditions.
  • Alcohol misuse is characterized as the fifth leading risk factor for premature death and disability in the 15-49 year-old age group, while close to 25% of total deaths in the 20-39 year-old age group can be attributed to alcohol.

If you’re a drinker and you’re worried about your risk of developing an AUD, the first thing to do is determine your level of drinking. Heavy drinkers are at far greater risk of developing an AUD than low-to-moderate drinkers. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines heavy drinking as the consumption of five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of five or more days over the period of one month. In plain language, that means if you’ve had more than five drinks – probably meaning you got pretty drunk – more than five times in the past thirty days, you’re at high risk of developing a potentially life-threatening AUD.

Check Yourself, Check Your Health

Maybe you know you have a problem with drinking. Maybe you drink heavily every day, but still manage to keep it all together. You show up for work, you manage your family obligations, and your health hasn’t started to suffer – yet. Maybe you know some form of treatment for your alcohol use is in your future, but you’re not quite ready for treatment yet. You’re not ready to take the plunge into rehab, therapy, or even weekly support group meetings, because, despite your heavy drinking, everything seems to be going fine.

The operative word in that last sentence is seems. In the case of chronic alcohol misuse – the kind that takes place over years – what you don’t know can, quite literally, kill you. That’s why it’s in your best interest to get checked out by a physician, even if you know you’re not going into treatment any time soon.

If the statistics haven’t convinced you to at least consider a visit to the doctor, perhaps this next set of facts will.

The Effects of Alcohol on Your Major Organs

You probably know alcohol wreaks havoc on your liver, but that’s not the only organ that suffers under chronic alcohol use. Let’s take a look at the other organs negatively impacted by alcohol use, starting at the top.

The Brain

Alcohol can damage the function and structure of your brain. Recent technology in brain imaging shows significant decrease in brain tissue. Chronic over-consumption of alcohol can also lead to Wernicke’s-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) a condition caused by vitamin B-1 deficiency. WKS is no picnic: effects may include alcoholic dementia, short-term memory loss, the inability to learn new information, cognitive impairment, eye problems, poor physical coordination, and difficulty walking.

The Heart 

Most people have read or heard that moderate alcohol consumption – say a glass or two of wine a day – is good for the cardiovascular system. What most people haven’t heard is that heavy alcohol consumption can damage your heart. Chronic, excessive drinking can to cardiomyopathy, which is a heart disease with symptoms like dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, swelling of the lower extremities, fatigue, abnormal pulse, and cough accompanied by a frothy, pink discharge. Unfortunately, the symptoms of cardiomyopathy can stay hidden until it’s too late, and heart failure is imminent.

The Liver

Alcohol-related liver disease comes in three primary forms:

  1. Alcoholic Cirrhosis. Cirrhosis means scarring. Therefore, alcoholic cirrhosis, simply put, means severe scarring and liver damage, with symptoms similar to severe alcoholic hepatitis. You cannot reverse cirrhosis, but if you catch it early enough you can prevent further damage. Left untreated, cirrhosis causes permanent damage which can only be improved by a liver transplant. In 2013, over 30,000 people died from alcohol related liver disease, and close to one-third of liver transplants were alcohol related.
  2. Alcoholic Hepatitis. This condition causes an increase in fat, inflammation, and mild cirrhosis. People suffering from alcoholic cirrhosis often experience nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, stomach pain, fever, and jaundice. Statistics show that close to 35% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis. While mild cases can be reversed if you quit drinking, more extreme cases may develop quickly and can lead to severe complications, including death.
  3. Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. This condition is characterized by a buildup of fat in liver tissue, which impedes optimal function. Occasionally there are no symptoms at all. Of the three liver diseases caused by excessive alcohol consumption, alcoholic fatty liver disease is the least damaging, and can be reversed – but only if you quit drinking.

Alcohol and Cancer

Liver disease is the most common and well-known health risk associated with heavy drinking, but it’s not the only serious, chronic illness related to excessive alcohol use. The American Cancer Society (ACS) links the following forms of cancer to alcohol:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Voice Box
  • Esophagus
  • Colon
  • Rectum
  • Breast

The message from the ACS is clear and simple: the more you drink, the higher your risk of getting cancer.

Our message to you is also clear and simple: if you know you have an alcohol problem, but you’re not ready to enter treatment, you need to go to a doctor and get a full health examination. You may not be showing symptoms yet, but beneath the surface, things may be headed in a very bad direction.

We understand not wanting to enter treatment for an Alcohol Use Disorder. Detox is hard, sobriety is harder, and recovery is a lifelong process. We understand you might not want to improve your psychological and emotional well-being, because right now, you’re functioning just fine. However, that body you’re living in is the only one you’ve got. We want to make sure you know, in no uncertain terms, that chronic, excess drinking can cause many conditions that are permanent, irreversible, and in some cases, fatal.