If you’ve ever had a drink (or two), you’re familiar with alcohol’s short-term effects. But do you know about the damage to your health from long-term alcohol use?
In general, the more people drink — and the longer they do — the higher their risk of severe health problems.
If you drink regularly, it’s important to understand the potential long-term effects on your physical and mental health. Learning about these effects may empower you to moderate your drinking.
Many studies have focused on the connection between alcohol and breast cancer. The studies consistently show that the more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk for breast cancer.
A recent analysis of 53 studies found that women who drank about three drinks a day were 1.5 times more likely to develop breast cancer than nondrinkers.
Studies have also shown that there is a 7 to 12 percent increase in the risk for breast cancer for every 10 grams of alcohol (slightly less than one drink) consumed per day.
In addition, drinking alcohol is a significant risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), esophagus, liver, colon and rectum.
Heavy drinking can cause heart failure, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and sudden cardiac death. Alcohol affects your heart in many ways. Here are two important ones:
Your blood pressure changes. A few drinks a week can actually lower your blood pressure. But cross the line into heavy drinking, and the story changes. Chronic heavy drinking — or even one episode of binge drinking — causes the brain to release stress hormones that stiffen blood vessels. With less elastic vessel walls, your heart has to work harder to pump blood. The pressure inside your veins and arteries increases, causing hypertension.
Your heart beats irregularly. Even moderate drinking may boost the risk for atrial fibrillation, a rhythm problem that occurs when the heart’s top chambers can’t fully contract. Atrial fibrillation, in turn, comes with quadruple the risk for stroke, double the risk for dementia and increased odds of dying from any cause.
Inflammation of the liver is the first stage of alcohol-induced liver disease. With continued drinking, severe liver scarring (cirrhosis) may develop. When cirrhosis occurs, the liver cannot work normally and may even require a transplant.
Women are more susceptible to alcoholic liver disease than men. Men generally develop cirrhosis from having an average of five alcoholic drinks a day for 10 years. But for women, the average is three drinks a day for 10 years.
Drinking alcohol causes additional risks for those with diabetes. For example, it increases your chances of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). And it can increase triglycerides, which are harmful fats in your blood.
And when you have alcohol in your system, you may be less likely to check your blood glucose, take your insulin or stick to your diet.
Long-term alcohol abuse can affect the brain in several ways:
- Shrinkage of the frontal lobes, resulting in impaired thinking and cognitive skills
- Damage to the cerebral cortex, which can affect the ability to solve problems and learn
- Disruptions to neurotransmitter balance, causing mood and behavioral changes and seizures
- Smaller brain mass, resulting in loss of coordination, temperature regulation and normal sleep
- Increased risk for dementia and stroke
- Increased risk for anxiety, depression and suicide
Women’s Added Risks
Men are more likely to drink heavily than women. But women’s health can be damaged by smaller amounts of alcohol than men’s health. And the negative impact can start happening sooner for women than for men.
Women who drink alcohol while pregnant risk having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, which causes mental retardation and physical defects.
Setting Healthy Limits
If you choose to drink, it’s important to take it easy, especially as you get older. Be aware of standard serving sizes. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
To help avoid drinking more than you mean to:
- Measure your servings. Measure 4 ounces and pour it into your regular wine glass. If you’re a fan of mixed drinks, measure alcohol with a 1.5-ounce jigger rather than pouring freehand.
- Stretch out a drink by sipping slowly.
- At parties, pace yourself by making every other drink nonalcoholic. And tell the host “no thank you” if he or she tries to top off your wine glass.
- Try not to drink every day.
Sources: "Focus On: Chronic Diseases and Conditions Related to Alcohol Use,” Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2014; “Alcohol Consumption and the Prevalence of Metabolic Syndrome: A Meta-analysis of Observational Studies,” Atherosclerosis, 2009; “Beyond Hangovers: Understanding Alcohol’s Impact on Your Health,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2010; “The Effect of Alcohol on Postprandial and Fasting Triglycerides,” International Journal of Vascular Medicine, 2012; Alcohol and Cancer Risk, National Cancer Institute, 2013; MADD