Alcohol abuse is linked to many risks, including car accidents and legal problems. However, major health problems can also result from long-term heavy drinking. Knowing some of the health issues that are associated with long-term drinking can help you make healthier decisions.
1. Increased Cancer Risk
Studies have found a link between heavy drinking and increased risks of cancer. Many different kinds of cancer are associated with drinking, including cancers of the:
- Larynx, or voice box
Doctors are still learning more about the different reasons that drinking may predispose people to cancer. Some known factors include:
- Acetaldehyde: This chemical is a breakdown product of alcohol. Although it lasts only briefly in the body in most people, it is known to be a cancer-causing agent.
- Reactive oxygen species: Heavy drinking causes liver enzymes like CYP2E1 to work overtime. Unstable chemicals like reactive oxygen species can result, harming cells and making the body more susceptible to cancer.
- Lower Vitamin A levels: Vitamin A and related nutrients, called retinoids, may help protect the body from cancer. However, heavy drinking can lead to lower Vitamin A levels. As a result, cancer risks may increase.
- Genetics: Many different gene variations have been linked to increased cancer risks in people who drink heavily.
- Estrogen: Alcohol has been linked to higher estrogen levels in women who drink. Drinking has also been linked to estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer.
2. Cardiovascular Disease
Drinking can contribute to many different cardiovascular, or CV, problems. In general, the more heavily a person drinks, the more at risk they are for CV issues. Doctors are still learning about the reasons that drinking is linked to CV conditions like:
- Hypertension, or high blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Peripheral arterial disease
- Cardiomyopathy, or enlarged heart
3. Cirrhosis of the Liver
Alcoholic liver disease is a spectrum of liver problems linked to drinking. The liver is responsible for processing the alcohol in the body and is, therefore, at risk for damage from drinking. After years of heavy drinking, permanent liver scarring can occur, a condition called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis can be life-threatening and is linked to other deadly complications like liver cancer and bleeding problems.
4. Dementia and Declining Mental Function
Doctors have found a link between long-term drinking and cognitive problems as people get older. However, they are not sure why this occurs. One type of dementia, Korsakoff Syndrome, is known to be directly linked to drinking. This type of dementia is permanent and is caused by low thiamine, or Vitamin B1, levels from chronic drinking.
Although moderate drinking is not linked to depression, heavy drinking is known to be a risk factor for depression and suicide. In fact, people who struggle with drinking have a suicide rate about 10 times higher than others.
6. Aggravates Existing Gout Condition
Gout, a painful inflammatory condition, can flare up when triggered by certain food or drink. Drinking is known to be one of the main triggers for a gout flare. After drinking, the kidneys prioritize ridding the body of alcohol instead of other substances like uric acid. In turn, uric acid buildup leads to a gout flare. For this reason, even modest amounts of alcohol may cause a gout flare. Avoiding drinking may result in fewer gout flare-ups.
Chronic drinking can raise the risk of brain problems like seizure in several ways. First, excessive drinking can cause alcohol poisoning, resulting in seizures from dehydration and abnormal blood chemical levels. Further, alcohol withdrawal can also lead to seizure because of rapid changes in brain chemicals during the withdrawal process.
8. High-Blood Pressure
Although low-to-moderate drinking is not linked with high blood pressure, heavy drinking may cause the condition. Doctors are still investigating the mechanisms by which drinking can lead to high blood pressure.
9. Nerve Damage
Heavy drinking can cause nerve damage in a couple of different ways. Alcohol itself can directly damage nerves. Further, people who drink heavily often have nutritional deficiencies like low Vitamin B12 levels, which can lead to permanent nerve damage. Nerve damage can happen differently depending on the person. In some people it might cause numbness, pain or a pins-and-needles feeling. In others, it may cause constipation, erectile dysfunction or muscle problems.
Besides causing bleeding disorders from cirrhosis, drinking is also linked to anemia. Every second, millions of blood cells are produced in the body. However, drinking suppresses this process. In turn, conditions like anemia, low white blood cells and low platelet counts can result.
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