Alcohol use is so deeply integrated into the American cultural experience that we often forget that this drug can cause serious long-term health risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol abuse is one of the top lifestyle-related causes of death in the United States, contributing to 80,000 deaths in this country every year. One of the biggest risks of alcohol abuse is the risk of dependence and addiction, which add to the medical, psychological and psychosocial damage that this drug can cause.
At one time, alcoholism was seen as the result of a weak will or a lack of self-control. Today, the American medical community views alcoholism as a chronic disease, with relapse rates that are similar to other lifelong conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. Fortunately, no matter how long you’ve been drinking, alcohol rehab can offer hope for a renewed life. If you’re wondering whether you’re ready to reach out for help, consider the toll that this drug can take on your health, your work, your family and your life.
Medical Risks of Alcoholism
Long-term alcoholism can have a devastating effect on all of the body’s systems, but the liver, which metabolizes most of the alcohol you consume, may suffer the most harm from heavy drinking. The liver, which is the second-largest organ in the body, plays roles in detoxification, digestion, metabolism and many other vital functions. Long-term drinking can cause any one of three major types of liver disease, according to the Liver Foundation:
- Fatty liver disease: An early stage of alcohol-induced liver disease, this condition is characterized by the accumulation of extra fat cells in the liver.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: Seen in approximately 35 percent of adults with alcoholism, hepatitis causes inflammation and swelling of the liver, which can cause sudden liver failure and death.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: Up to 20 percent of heavy, long-term drinkers develop cirrhosis, or hardening of the liver, which can lead to liver failure.
Along with the damage that alcohol causes to the liver, this drug can affect your heart, digestive system, kidneys and brain. The Mayo Clinic cautions that years of heavy drinking can cause a wide range of health problems, including:
- High blood pressure and heart disease
- Stomach inflammation, ulcers and pancreatitis
- An increased risk of type 2 diabetes
- A great risk of cancer, especially of the digestive tract, liver and breast
- Fragile, breakable bones
- A suppressed immune system
- Nerve damage
- Cognitive problems and memory loss
- Complications with pregnancy and birth defects
- Problems with sexual function and libido
In addition to the medical problems caused by heavy drinking, alcoholism increases your risk of being injured or killed in an accident. Motor vehicle accidents, drowning, falls, assaults and fires are often the tragic results of heavy drinking. The longer you drink and the more alcohol you consume, the more you expose yourself and your loved ones to these dangers. And because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it also increases the risk of depression and suicide.
Alcohol’s Effects on Mental Function
The effects of alcohol on the brain begin to manifest themselves in many drinkers after only one or two drinks. Altered judgment, short-term memory loss, blackouts, impaired motor function and tunnel vision are a few of the notable changes brought on by drinking. All these changes can have serious, life-altering side effects, including:
- An increase in high-risk behaviors (unsafe sex, drug abuse, drunk driving, etc.)
- An increase in accidental injuries
- Increased vulnerability to sexual assault or violence
- Increased aggression or hostility towards others
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes that long-term alcoholism can actually alter the size and structure of the brain. Studies using computerized tomography, or CT scans, have shown considerable shrinkage in the brains of alcoholics. Some studies indicate that women suffer greater brain damage as a result of drinking than men, while others suggest that both male and female alcoholics experience brain damage at approximately the same rate. Chronic alcoholics show cognitive deficits in their ability to learn, process information and remember.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is one of the most common neurological disorders caused by alcohol abuse. This disorder is caused by a deficiency of thiamine, a B vitamin that plays a crucial role in brain and nerve health. In the early stages, WKS causes the brain to swell, leading to confusion, nerve damage and impaired motor coordination. If the condition progresses, it can cause severe episodes of psychosis, forgetfulness and loss of the ability to control physical movements.
Check out more on how society currently views mental health illness and how we hope to shift this perspective in the future. Sam Webb shares his thoughts on Recovery Unscripted.
Alcohol abuse can have a negative effect on your psychological health as well as your cognitive function. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, alcoholism and mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder often co-occur in the same individuals. While alcoholism may not cause psychiatric disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder, heavy drinking can make these conditions worse.
The sooner you seek treatment for alcohol abuse, the greater your chances of avoiding harm to your brain and other vital organs. The NIAAA adds that after one year of abstinence, even chronic alcoholics show improvements in their cognition and memory. Whether you’ve been drinking for a few months or for decades, it’s never too late to begin the healing process.
Alcohol and Psychosocial Problems
Long-term alcoholism can destroy your closest personal relationships, causing deep rifts between spouses, parents and children, and partners. Heavy drinking has been linked to an increased risk of domestic violence, physical abuse and verbal abuse in families. According to the University of Minnesota, alcohol abuse can contribute to domestic violence in the following ways:
- Couples may argue over the personal, financial and legal consequences of drinking.
- Intoxication may make one partner misinterpret another’s actions.
- Heavy drinking may trigger episodes of violence or hostility.
- Children who witness their parents drinking and engaging in spousal abuse may grow up to imitate this behavior.
Children who grow up in households with at least one alcoholic guardian have a higher risk of developing alcoholism themselves. Alternatively, they may take on a “caretaking” role at an early age, acting as a parent for an adult who can’t function normally because of heavy alcohol use. This role reversal can lead to serious emotional problems, low self-esteem and codependent relationships in the future.
Alcoholics who commit crimes while under the influence may never be involved in their children’s lives. According to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA Columbia), alcoholism accounts for more incarcerations than any of the illicit drugs combined. Up to one-fifth of inmates in state prisons have committed violent crimes under the influence of alcohol. Drunk driving, robbery, assault, homicide and domestic violence are among the crimes committed by inmates when they were intoxicated.
Chronic alcoholism can lead to chronic unemployment. Although some alcoholics function at a high level in their professions while drinking, most of them eventually have a slip or make a mistake that either motivates them to go to rehab or leads to the loss of a career. The downward spiral of alcoholism can eventually lead to bankruptcy, poverty and homelessness.
Is It Too Late to Get Help?
If you’ve been drinking for a long time, you may wonder if there’s any hope for a new life. In fact, many long-term alcoholics have turned their lives around after decades of drinking with the help of professional rehab centers. Once you commit to building a life of sobriety in rehab, you can take advantage of a full range of recovery resources, including:
- Alcohol detoxification in a safe, supportive environment with the help of consulting physicians
- Access to addiction counselors who understand the complex nature of chronic alcoholism
- The support and encouragement of peers who are going through the same struggles
- The opportunity to receive intensive counseling with your spouse, partner and children in order to strengthen your relationships and create a more nurturing home life
- Nutritional counseling to help you restore your physical health after years of drinking
- Pharmacological support in the form of anti-addiction medications (naltrexone, acamprosate, disulfiram, etc.) that curb your desire to drink
- Relapse prevention education to give you the coping skills you need to maintain long-term sobriety
- Transitional housing at a sober living facility, where you can get used to the demands of daily life after you graduate from rehab
- Aftercare services like counseling, job placement assistance and 12-step support groups to help you keep up with your recovery goals after rehab
Alcoholism usually starts with recreational or experimental drinking before it finally evolves into full-blown dependence. No matter where you are in the cycle of addiction, it’s never too late or too early to recognize the destructive power of alcohol. You can reclaim control over your future by calling us about our comprehensive treatment options for alcohol addiction. At The Oaks at La Paloma, we give you the tools you need to build a healthy, sober life. Call us to find out how alcohol treatment at our beautiful, holistic facility can help you achieve long-lasting recovery.