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The Long-Term Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Posted in Alcoholism

Long-term alcohol abuse can affect different aspects of your life, not the least of which is your health. While you don’t have to wait for years to suffer the adverse effects of alcohol abuse, there are some conditions that are cumulative and which increase in severity over time.

Regular alcohol abuse impacts all of the body’s organs, including the brain. It plays a role in damaging the brain and other organs at the cellular level. Some of the long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver – a progressive condition in which scar slowly replaces healthy tissues, disrupting liver function. It is one of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S.
  • Hepatitis C – a virus that decreases liver function.
  • Certain cancers – including those in the breast, throat, esophagus, mouth, liver, and colon. The long-term risks of developing cancer also appear to be equivalent to the amount of alcohol consumed.
  • Nerve-related illnesses – including neuropathy (nerve death), dementia, and stroke
  • Psychiatric disorders – including anxiety, depression, and suicide
  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • Gastrointestinal problems – such as gastritis and pancreatitis

Alcohol and your Brain

The acute effects of alcohol abuse are obvious to anyone who has ever observed another person while they are intoxicated. They can’t walk straight, have problems with their vision, their reactions times are slow, and their speech is slurred. These effects are much greater when a person continues to consume a lot of alcohol over an extended period of time.

The effects of alcohol abuse on one’s health may be minor to severe, depending on several different factors. The volume and frequency that alcohol is consumed play an important role. The person’s overall health also impacts the effect of alcohol.

Those who start drinking when they are very young and continue to drink well into adulthood will have the highest risk of experiencing serious complications due to the effects of alcohol abuse. Compared to men, women are more likely to suffer the medical consequences associated with alcohol use after a shorter period of time.

Liver Disease

While most people recognize cirrhosis as a liver disease that is common in alcoholics, most don’t understand its connection to the long-term effects of alcohol abuse.

The first step in the development of cirrhosis of the liver is inflammation. Malnutrition, which is common in alcoholics, also plays a role in the development of this condition. The more a person drinks, the less of an appetite he or she has. As a result, fewer nutrients are consumed and absorbed through the intestinal tract. Additionally, toxins in the liver accumulate over time and further contribute to the development of the disease.

The liver will remain inflamed for several years before it progresses to the level of cirrhosis. During this phase, the healthy liver tissue is gradually replaced with scar tissue. The scar tissue interferes with the liver’s ability to function properly. At least 1 out of every 10 people who consume excessive amounts of alcohol will develop cirrhosis of the liver. The majority of those who develop it are women. Since women are more vulnerable to developing this disease, they can develop it after drinking only half the amount of alcohol consumed by men who develop it.

Treatment for cirrhosis is only given after the individual stops consuming alcohol. For most, this means attending a rehabilitation program or, at the very least, counseling. They must also be given supplements in addition to a nutritious diet to combat malnutrition. In some patients, the advancement of the disease is such that their only treatment option is a liver transplant.

Other Serious Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Most people are familiar with the connection between long-term effects of alcohol abuse and damage to the liver. This is due to the liver’s job of breaking down fluids and removing byproducts from the body.

What they may not realize is that the liver cirrhosis that develops due to excessive drinking can also lead to brain damage. Because the liver is so damaged, two toxic substances – ammonia and manganese – are able to make their way to the brain and damage the cells.

The resulting condition is known as hepatic encephalopathy. This brain disorder can cause changes in personality, mood, and sleep patterns. It may also cause anxiety and depression. Other problems caused by hepatic encephalopathy include problems with attention and loss of coordination.

Treatment for hepatic encephalopathy includes methods which lower the level of blood ammonia. An artificial liver may be used to clean ammonia out of the patient’s blood. A liver transplant may also be necessary.

Women and Alcohol

Because of the differences in the way their bodies are made, women absorb more alcohol into their blood than men. Their bodies also take longer to metabolize it. Although they may drink an equal amount, women will have a much higher level of alcohol in their blood than men. Although men are more likely to drink large volumes of alcohol repeatedly over time, women are still more vulnerable to the long-term effects of alcohol abuse.

Women not only have a higher risk for cirrhosis of the liver, they are also more likely to experience memory loss and shrinkage of the brain. These problems often appear sooner in women than they do in men. Also, even those women who consume less alcohol than men are still more likely to have damage to their heart as a result. Their risk of breast cancer also increases in proportion to the amount of alcohol they consume.

The long-term effects of alcohol abuse have the ability to cause many serious conditions. These conditions no only seriously impact people’s quality of life; they also impact their quantity of life. The sooner those who abuse alcohol get their drinking under control, the better their odds for a long and healthy life will be.