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Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Effects of Alcohol Abuse and AddictionIt's been widely reported that regular light to moderate drinking can be good for the heart. But that's only a portion of the story. With heavy or at-risk drinking, any potential heart healthy benefits are outweighed by far greater risks, including:


Drinking too much increases your chances of being injured or even killed. Alcohol is a factor, for example, in about 60% of fatal burn injuries, drownings, and homicides; 50% of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults; and 40% of fatal motor vehicle crashes, suicides, and fatal falls.

Health Problems

Heavy drinkers have a greater risk of liver disease including hepatitis and cirrhosis, heart disease, kidney damage, sleep disorders, nutritional deficiency, depression, stroke, bleeding from the stomach, sexually transmitted infections from unsafe sex, and several types of cancer including breast cancer. Heavy drinkers may also have problems managing diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions.

Brain Damage

The effects of alcohol on the brain can occur by both direct and indirect means. Thus, it is not really necessary that the alcohol actually reach the brain, though it does, for brain function to be modified.

Damage to the brain can occur through alcohol-induced deficiencies in nutrition, liver disease, and through alterations in the function of other bodily systems (e.g. immune, hormonal), which produce substances that end up in the blood and get transported to the brain.

Behavioral Problems

Alcohol acts as a depressant on the brain and generally decreases the activity of the nervous system. Alcohol can produce diminished judgment, reduced attention span, and slight un-coordination. Alcohol induces slower reaction times, loss of balance, blurred vision, exaggerated motions, difficulty in remembering, confusion, dizziness, slurred speech, severe intoxication, alterations in mood including withdrawal, aggression, or increased affection, and diminished ability to feel pain.

Birth Defects

Drinking during pregnancy can cause brain damage and other serious problems in the baby, including behavioral problems and possible pre-term labor. Because it is not yet known whether any amount of alcohol is safe for a developing baby, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should not drink.

Medicine Reactions

Some medicines that you might never have suspected can react with alcohol, including many that can be purchased "over-the-counter" without a prescription. Even some herbal remedies don't mix well with alcohol. Protect yourself by avoiding alcohol if you are taking a medication and don't know its effect, or talk to your pharmacist or other health care provider.

Beyond these physical and mental health risks, frequent heavy drinking also is linked with personal problems, including losing a driver's license and having relationship troubles.

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".

Women in Particular

Research shows that women start to have alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels than men do. One reason is that, on average, women weigh less than men. In addition, alcohol disperses in body water, and pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men do.

So after a man and woman of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman's blood alcohol concentration will tend to be higher, putting her at greater risk for harm.

Older Adults

Alcohol's effects vary with age. Slower reaction times, problems with hearing and seeing, and a lower tolerance to alcohol's effects put older people at higher risk for falls, car crashes, and other types of injuries that may result from drinking. Older people also tend to take more medicines than younger people. Mixing alcohol with over-the-counter or prescription medications can be very dangerous, even fatal. In addition, alcohol can make many of the medical conditions common in older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers, more serious. Physical changes associated with aging can make older people feel "high" even after drinking only small amounts of alcohol.

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