Long-Term Effects of Alcohol AbusePeople who abuse alcohol consume enough beer, wine or hard liquor to change their normal behaviors in damaging ways. Just as importantly, a long-term pattern of alcohol abuse can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening alterations in physical health[i]. The consequences of chronic, excessive drinking can have a negative impact on the central nervous system, immune system and other areas of the body.

Defining Alcohol Abuse

The term alcohol abuse has a couple of potential meanings. In one sense, it is the functional equivalent of heavy drinking, a pattern of excessive intake that can lead to serious short-term problems (i.e., alcohol poisoning and motor vehicle accidents), as well as serious long-term problems.

The term also refers more strictly to people who, while not addicted to alcohol, still orient their lives around drinking in ways that negatively impact their lives. In this sense, alcohol abuse is part of a diagnosable condition called alcohol use disorder[ii] (AUD). The AUD definition also includes the symptoms of alcohol addiction or alcoholism.

Why Is Alcohol Harmful?

While it has long-standing as a socially acceptable substance, alcohol is — in essence — a poisonous substance. In addition to producing the effects that tend to appeal to drinkers (e.g., feelings of pleasure and a loss of inhibition), it slows down the basic level of activity inside the brain. The poisonous effects of alcohol also appear in several other crucially important organs such as the liver, which bears responsibility for eliminating alcohol and preventing the onset of dangerous toxic reactions. Additional organs and systems that react negatively to the presence of alcohol include:

  • The heart
  • The pancreas
  • The immune system

Effects on the Brain

Alcohol alters the function of several parts of the human brain, including the regions responsible for such things as:

  • Muscle coordination
  • Memory
  • Emotional control
  • Logical thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Learning

In a person who abuses alcohol long-term, these functions can decline by a noticeable amount. In addition, chronic exposure to excessive amounts of alcohol can literally shrink the brain’s tissues[iii] and lead to an overall loss of brain volume.

Long-term alcohol abuse can also have a major indirect impact on brain health. People engaged in chronic patterns of abuse often fail to eat properly and develop nutritional deficiencies. One of the most critical deficiencies is a shortage of vitamin B1 (thiamine).

Long-term lack of this vitamin sets the stage for Wernicke encephalopathy, a brain disease marked by symptoms that include eye and muscle problems, gradually worsening mental health and (in extreme cases) coma. Wernicke sometimes occurs in combination with another B1-related condition called Korsakoff psychosis, which produces:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions that take the form of “tall tales”
  • Potentially extensive memory disruptions
  • A blocked ability to form new memories

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Effects on the Liver

Chronic heavy drinkers are subject to the development of three progressively worsening liver conditions:

  • Fatty liver or steatosis (fat buildup in the liver)
  • Alcoholic hepatitis (alcohol-related liver inflammation)
  • Cirrhosis (liver scarring)

These ailments are grouped together as alcohol-related liver disease[iv]. Fatty liver is a relatively harmless, potentially reversible condition. Some people affected by alcoholic hepatitis also recover if they alter their drinking behaviors. However, people affected by alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis can and do die as a result of lost liver function.

Effects on the Heart and Cardiovascular System

A heart damaged by chronic alcohol overexposure can develop a range of serious problems. Damaging changes can also appear in the blood vessels that form the rest of the body’s cardiovascular system. A short list of the possible issues includes:

  • Increased chances of having a stroke
  • Hypertension (i.e., high blood pressure)
  • Heartbeat irregularities
  • Dangerously abnormal heart muscle tissue
  • Heart failure (lack of sufficient heart function)
  • Cardiac arrest (complete stoppage of the heart)

All of these conditions can lead directly to death or contribute to fatal outcomes.

Effects on the Pancreas

The pancreas is the organ responsible for releasing insulin, a hormone needed to process the simple sugar glucose, which the body creates when it digests carbohydrates. It also releases chemicals (enzymes) needed to support proper digestion. A person engaged in a long-term pattern of alcohol abuse runs the risk of developing pancreatitis, a condition marked by pancreatic inflammation[v]. In turn, this inflammation can lead to consequences that include:

  • Abdominal swelling
  • Dehydration
  • Pancreatic infections
  • Internal bleeding
  • Permanently damaged pancreatic tissue
  • Unsustainably low blood pressure (i.e., hypovolemic shock)
  • Death

Effects on the Immune System

Along with the skin, the immune system forms the body’s critical defense network against dangerous microorganisms. Even short-term heavy drinking can temporarily boost risks for infectious diseases. Long-term exposure to excessive amounts of alcohol creates a greater threat. The list of severe, potentially deadly ailments associated with an immune system weakened by chronic heavy drinking includes both tuberculosis and various forms of pneumonia.

Increased Cancer Risks

Statistics show that people involved in chronic alcohol abuse also have heightened chances of developing several forms of cancer. The liver is one of the organs most at risk. Cancer risks also increase in three areas directly exposed to alcohol: the mouth, throat and esophagus. In addition, chronic heavy drinkers have increased odds of developing breast cancer.

Treating Alcohol Use Disorder

Millions of Americans are suffering from the ongoing effects of alcohol use disorder[vi]. Today, doctors have a number of medical and behavioral options for treating this condition. Unfortunately, while many of these options have proven usefulness, relatively few people seek help from qualified professionals. This is a crucial point, since nothing can reduce the odds of experiencing the long-term effects of alcohol abuse more effectively than putting a stop to excessive alcohol intake.

Transformations Treatment Center, and our Summit Detox facility, are trusted resources for people struggling with the effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Our certified, expert staff has the experience needed to address minor, moderate or severe alcohol-related symptoms. Regardless of the specific problems you’re experiencing, we’ll develop a treatment plan that meets your needs and maximizes the short-term and long-term effectiveness of your recovery.

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol’s Effects on the Body https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body
  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) Treatment https://medlineplus.gov/alcoholusedisorderaudtreatment.html
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Beyond Hangovers – Understanding Alcohol’s Impact on Your Health
  4. American Liver Foundation: Alcohol-Related Liver Disease http://www.liverfoundation.org/abouttheliver/info/alcohol/
  5. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Pancreatitis
  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States – Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
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