Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in America, with one in 12 adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependence, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). Excessive drinking—on a single occasion or over a length of time—can lead to serious health problems, chronic diseases and even death. Alcohol abuse also impacts users' behavior, which can result in accidents and violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 annual deaths between 2006 and 2010.
The dangers of alcohol abuse and addiction are grave and far-reaching. While some people can overcome this addiction on their own, most people need assistance. Alcoholism treatment programs can help end the grips of alcohol on you or a loved one.
What Is Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?
Many people drink a moderate amount of alcohol without harmful consequences, while for others, just one drink can lead down a dangerous path. Problem drinking is not defined only by how often or even how much a person drinks. Instead, it comes down to how the alcohol affects the person's life. People who consistently have issues with their work life, family relationships, finances or emotions because of their alcohol use could have a drinking problem.
A pattern of unhealthy or dangerous drinking habits, clinically known as an alcohol use disorder, can range in severity. Over time, it can affect the brain and lead to compulsive alcohol use and dependency, or alcoholism. It can be difficult to assess a drinking problem. Start by learning about alcohol abuse signs and symptoms.
The Effects of Alcohol on Health
Over the long-term, the effects of alcoholism on the body and overall health can be significant. They can be difficult or impossible to reverse. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), excessive alcohol use can affect these parts of the body:
- Heart — High blood pressure, stroke, irregular heartbeat
- Liver — Inflammation including alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis
- Kidneys — Acute kidney failure, chronic kidney disease
- Pancreas — Inflammation and swelling of blood vessels that prevent proper digestion
- Immune System — Weakened immune systems can make people susceptible to diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia
Alcohol abuse has also been linked to cancers of the breast, mouth, esophagus, throat, larynx, colon and rectum. It may also increase the risk of stomach and pancreas cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
Alcohol Effects on the Brain
Alcohol can have short- and long-term effects on the brain. According to the NIAAA, alcohol disrupts the brain's communication pathways, which directly impacts how the brain works: "These disruptions can change mood and behavior and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination."
Know The Facts
There's a lot of mistaken "all or nothing" thinking about alcoholism. Many people assume there are two options: Either you don't have a problem with drinking, or you're a "total alcoholic" whose life is falling apart. The reality is not a simple black or white, but more of a spectrum with shades of gray. An alcohol use disorder—that is, alcohol abuse or alcoholism—can be mild, moderate or severe. People with an alcohol use disorder can be highly functioning, highly compromised or somewhere in between. Alcoholic addiction is rarely a case of "all or nothing."
Even a single bout of binge drinking can destroy the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, causing them to relay information too slowly and triggering mood changes. This can result in depression, agitation, memory loss and seizures. For heavy, long-term drinkers, alcohol has been found to reduce the size of brain cells and overall brain mass. This can impact motor coordination, sleep, mood and an array of cognitive functions.
Brain damage may also occur through alcohol-induced nutrition deficiencies and liver disease. In addition, alcohol exposure can impact the brains of human fetuses, resulting in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
The NIAAA reports that alcohol-induced brain problems can often be corrected with proper treatment: "Abstaining from alcohol over several months to a year may allow structural brain changes to partially correct. Abstinence also can help reverse negative effects on thinking skills, including problem¬-solving, memory, and attention."
Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Behavior
Slurred speech, motor impairment, confusion and memory problems are just a few common consequences of alcohol consumption in the short term. This can make drinkers more prone to accidents, injuries and violent behavior. The NIAAA reports that alcohol is a factor in more than half of fatal burn injuries, drownings and homicides. It's also a significant factor in trauma injuries, falls, suicides and sexual assaults. Alcohol plays a part in 40 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes.
Heavy drinking may also result in risky sexual behaviors like unprotected sex, which can lead to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The Effects of Alcohol on Different Populations
Alcohol affects different people in different ways. Genes, environment and diet can influence whether a drinker is prone to develop an alcohol-related disease, while factors such as age, weight and gender can impact alcohol's more immediate effects.
The NIAAA reports that women tend to be more vulnerable than men to the effects of alcohol due to differences in how their bodies absorb and metabolize alcohol. For women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks during a single occasion, while heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks per week. For men, binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks during a single occasion, while heavy drinking is 15 or more drinks per week.
Alcohol may also have more serious effects on seniors, as aging impacts how the body handles alcohol consumption. According to the National Institute on Aging, alcohol abuse may worsen some health problems like diabetes, osteoporosis, memory loss, high blood pressure and mood disorders. It may also increase the likelihood of accidents such as falls and fractures.
To get help with a possible alcohol use disorder or other substance use disorder, learn more about our treatment program options.