What Are The Long Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol is the most widely consumed intoxicating substance in the United States.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2018 the overwhelming majority (an estimated 66%) of all adults in the U.S. drank alcohol that year.1 Because alcohol is so widely available and legal for those above drinking age to purchase, it’s easy to view it as relatively harmless. However, alcohol use can be problematic and has the potential to negatively affect a person’s long-term health outlook—and not just for the heavy drinker.2

A person does not have to have an alcohol use disorder to experience the adverse health effects of drinking. Regular drinking and, especially, excessive drinking can impact your health in numerous ways, regardless of whether you ever become fully addicted to alcohol. For example, just a single episode of heavy drinking can lead to certain cardiovascular issues such as irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, and elevated stroke risk, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).2 Even moderate drinking can have a negative impact; for women, just one drink per day can contribute to increased breast cancer risk.3

Alcohol is one of the leading causes of early mortality for Americans. In 2017, alcohol was in some way involved in 2.6% of all deaths in the United States.3 In the 18 years between 1999 and 2017, alcohol contributed to almost 1 million deaths in the U.S.3 The largest increases over this time span were among young adults between 25 and 34 years old.3

This article will help you understand some of the ways that alcohol can be harmful and lead to the development of significant health issues that may lead to early mortality.

Effects of Alcohol on the Heart

Some research comparing moderate drinkers to non-drinkers suggests that moderate drinking, such as an occasional glass of red wine, may be associated with decreased heart disease risks. However, the link between alcohol and heart health may be complicated by other factors, such as the fact that non-drinkers may abstain due to illness or past issues with alcohol abuse or that red wine drinkers may be likely to have higher incomes and thus better access to healthy foods and education.4,5 Plus, any possible health benefits you might receive from drinking can be achieved through other lifestyle modifications such as exercise and eating right.5

And while some might be tempted to zero in on a potential connection between drinking  and a positive impact on heart health (or at the minimum, not a negative one) to justify any drinking behavior, a key factor that may be easily overlooked is that the correlation may only exist with moderate drinking (one drink per day for women and one or two for men).5  In other words, more is not better in this case, and for people with certain heart conditions (such as arrhythmias), any drinking can be dangerous.5

Heavy drinking (8 or more drinks/week for women and 15/week or more for men6) is not beneficial for the heart and has been linked to:5,6

  • Arrhythmias.
  • Disease of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy).
  • High blood pressure.
  • Stroke.
  • Heart failure.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol also has detrimental effects on the brain, especially with long-term use. Even short-term use can lead to blackouts and memory loss. However, if you keep using heavy amounts of alcohol, you risk more serious brain issues.

Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1). As many as 80% of individuals who struggle with alcoholism develop thiamine deficiencies. Over time, low thiamine can lead to a very serious condition known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, with symptoms such as severe mental confusion, muscular incoordination,  and paralysis of nerves that move the eye/problems with eye movement.7

An estimated 80%–90% of alcoholics who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy will also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, a severe condition marked by persistent cognitive issues including forgetfulness and an inability to form new memories. Alcoholics with Korsakoff’s psychosis may become easily frustrated while navigating these memory deficits. They  may also experience problems with muscle coordination and walking.7

People may also begin to associate the pleasurable feelings of intoxication with certain environmental cues, which can further complicate attempts to quit drinking. Just seeing a “drinking buddy” or passing by a favorite bar may be enough to elicit strong cravings for alcohol that are difficult to ignore.8

Over time, it becomes incredibly hard for people who are addicted to alcohol to cut back on their drinking by means of sheer willpower. Those with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may experience disruptions in brain pathways involved with judgment and decision-making. As a result someone with AUD may be unable control their drinking even when doing so is clearly in their best interest (e.g., if they have health or relationship problems caused or made worse by alcohol).8

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Liver & Pancreas

The liver performs vital functions in the body, including aiding in the digestion of food and filtering waste out of the body. The liver also breaks down alcohol, and this vital organ can be significantly damaged by chronic heavy drinking.9

With continued heavy drinking, liver disease may eventually develop. The 3 main stages of liver disease that may occur are:9,10

  • Fatty liver (i.e., alcoholic steatohepatitis). This is the most common alcohol-related liver disease that develops as fat deposits in the liver tissue. It can happen to almost anyone who drinks regularly. Though it is often asymptomatic, alcoholic fatty liver disease may be accompanied by newly elevated liver enzymes, fatigue, and the start of liver enlargement.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis. With continued drinking, fatty liver may progress to hepatitis, a condition of widespread liver inflammation, liver cell necrosis (death), scarring, and fibrosis. Other signs and symptoms may include pain, weakness, fever, nausea, loss of appetite/weight loss, jaundice, and abdominal distension as a result of fluid buildup.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis. The most severe progression of liver disease, cirrhosis is marked by an abundance of scar tissue in the liver and the loss of liver function. Some damage from cirrhosis may be reversible if a person stops drinking completely. However, some damage may be permanent. People with cirrhosis can show all the symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis along with:
    • A scarred, shrunken liver.
    • Enlarged spleen.
    • Portal hypertension.
    • Intestinal bleeding.
    • Worsening jaundice.
    • Fluid retention in the abdomen.
    • Confusion (i.e., hepatic encephalopathy).

Those who suffer any form of alcohol-induced liver disease are at higher risk of developing liver cancer than those without. Those with cirrhosis are the most vulnerable to developing cancer, as well as severe infections and renal problems.9

In addition to liver disease, a person can develop pancreatitis from excessive alcohol use. Pancreatitis is a painful condition in which the pancreas becomes very inflamed. Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, constant and severe abdominal pain that may radiate to the back, and distended abdomen. Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic.11 The most severe cases of acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening.12

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Kidneys

Kidneys are designed to filter waste and regulate the amount of water in the body. Long-term alcohol use can damage the kidneys and make them less efficient. Kidney damage can also develop as a result of long-standing high blood pressure caused or worsened by alcohol use. Exceeding just two drinks per day can cause high blood pressure.13

Alcohol use can also lead to rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle tissue into the bloodstream.14 If untreated, the large muscle proteins that spill into the bloodstream as a result of rhabdomyolysis can lead to kidney damage and kidney failure.15

As mentioned, liver health is also linked to kidney health. Cirrhosis of the liver can lead to kidney failure.9

Alcohol and the GI System

Alcohol misuse is associated with inflammation throughout the gastrointestinal tract, which can increase the risk of:16–19

  • The lining of the stomach becomes inflamed, causing nausea, belching, heartburn, a sensation of fullness, and bloating.
  • Swelling and irritation in the esophagus can lead to symptoms such as heartburn, acid reflux, and trouble swallowing.
  • When the lining of the duodenum (part of the small intestine) becomes inflamed, it can cause gas, pain, burning/cramping in the stomach, nausea, and vomiting.

Does Excessive Drinking Cause Cancer?

Excessive drinking has been linked to an increased risk of many types of cancer, including:2

  • Head and neck cancers. People who have about 3 drinks per day have 2 to 3 times the risk of head and neck cancers. Smoking in addition to drinking further compounds this risk.
  • Esophageal cancer. Alcohol has been strongly associated with the risk of this cancer type. Genetic differences that result in relatively lower amounts of key metabolic enzymes (e.g., alcohol dehydrogenase, aldehyde dehydrogenase) can make people more susceptible to this type of cancer.
  • Liver cancer. Alcohol consumption can cause a spectrum of liver disease; as liver disease progresses, so does the risk of liver cancer. Alcoholism is also linked to an increased risk of hepatitis C, another risk factor for liver cancer.20
  • Colorectal cancer. Compared with non-drinkers, those who have 3 drinks per day are up to 2x more likely to develop colon cancer.21
  • Breast cancer. Research shows that for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day, the risk of breast cancer increases by 12%.

There are several theories as to why alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer, including:21

  • Alcohol contains ethanol, which metabolizes into acetaldehyde, a potential carcinogen.
  • Alcohol produces molecules that contain reactive oxygen species (i.e., free radicals), and the resultant oxidation can damage DNA, fats, and proteins in the body.
  • Alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb and utilize many vitamins that can help prevent cancer from forming, including vitamins A, B, C, D, and E.
  • Alcohol boosts levels of estrogen, a hormone linked to an increased risk of certain types of breast cancer.

Alcohol’s Effects on a Fetus 

Alcohol use during pregnancy also poses a significant risk to the developing fetus. There is no safe type nor amount of alcohol to drink at any point during pregnancy. 22

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are also a risk in women who drink before they’re even aware that they’re pregnant. These disorders may include the following issues:22

  • Abnormal facial features.
  • Small head size and low body weight.
  • Short stature.
  • Sleep problems as an infant.
  • Vision/hearing problems.
  • Bone, kidney, or heart problems.
  • A variety of cognitive and behavioral issues, including learning disabilities, poor concentration, memory problems, and hyperactivity.

Getting Help for Alcoholism

Alcohol has the potential to cause so much harm to your health, but with treatment you can get sober and reverse many of the negative effects of alcohol on your body. Treatment for alcoholism may include medical detox, inpatient and/or outpatient rehab, and medications to support long-term recovery. Learn about getting sober with the help of AdCare by calling us at any time at .