There are long-term health risks associated with drinking over time. These risks include damage to the heart, liver, and brain. However, it should be noted that the vast majority of our health risks occur over the course of a single evening, not after decades of abuse. A college-aged student has a much higher risk of an alcohol-related injury caused by a car crash, slipping or falling, getting into a fight, etc. than developing cirrhosis of the liver.
Still, these long-term health risks are important to know because if a person is currently a heavy drinker, has been so in the past, or plans on continuing drinking in this manner in the future, that person ought to know the consequences and damage. There are a number of long-term health risks involved with chronic alcohol abuse; risks in addition to other physical effects such as weight gain, dry skin and a compromised immune system.
Alcohol-induced liver disease (ALD) is a major cause of illness and death in the United States. In fact, the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, 20046 reports that chronic liver disease and cirrhosis rank among the top 10 leading causes of death in the nation. ALD comes in several different forms, some more severe than others.
The first, and least serious, of these, is fatty liver. Fatty liver is just what it sounds like, a buildup of fat in the liver. Fat buildup is not normal and is usually indicative of a more severe liver problem. A more serious liver condition is alcoholic hepatitis; characterized by persistent inflammation of the liver, alcohol hepatitis can cause scarring and hardening of the liver. When scarring becomes extensive, the condition is called cirrhosis, which is very serious and often fatal.
All of these contribute to the death of liver cells. The presence of damaged cells triggers the body’s defensive responses resulting in a vicious cycle of inflammation, cell death, and eventually organ failure, ensuring the necessity of a liver transplant.
Liver cancer is a very real and very serious health risk of irresponsible drinking. Deaths from liver cancer are higher among heavy alcohol users than people who do not drink. By altering the liver’s ability to metabolize some carcinogenic substances into harmless compounds or to disable certain existing carcinogens, alcohol’s effects may influence liver cancer.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can raise the levels of fat in the blood (triglycerides), leading to high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. It can also lead to high blood pressure, heart failure and increased calorie intake (leading to obesity and a higher risk of diabetes). Excessive high risk drinking can also lead to stroke. Other serious problems related to heart disease and the use of alcohol include cardiomyopathy a disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and therefore doesn't work efficiently, cardiac arrhythmia, (abnormal, irregular heartbeat) and sudden cardiac death.
In understanding the various risks faced by 15-24 year olds, it is important to note that brain development significantly impacts decision-making skills. Current research dispels the previously held belief that an adolescent, after undergoing puberty, has a brain that closely resembles that of an adult. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), “The brain’s center of reasoning and problem solving is among the last to mature…” (NIMH, 2004)7. In this decade long study, the brains of thirteen healthy children and teens, from ages four to twenty one, were scanned every two years using MRI technology. In studying these images, researchers found that, “Areas with more advanced [brain] functions – integrating information from the senses, reasoning, and other executive functions (prefrontal cortex) – mature last” (NIMH)7. This gradual brain development makes adolescents physiologically more prone to risky decision-making that can have dangerous results. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School reports that, “Indeed, the risk of injury or death is higher during the adolescent period than in childhood or adulthood, and the incidence of depression, anxiety, drug use and addiction, and eating disorders increases…It is clear that adolescents think and act differently from adults…” (Kelley, 2004)8.
Additionally, research demonstrates that new, and sometimes dangerous, experiences “…tap into a teenager’s so-called reward system…This is the same set of neurons affected by certain illicit drugs, such as cocaine, that releases dopamine, one of the brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that are responsible for arousal and motivation” (Brownlee et al, 1999)9. While new experiences may produce a “rush,” substance use and abuse in young people can cause serious health risks, such as a lasting impact on brain development, chemical balances, and neurological “hardwiring” (Brownlee et. al., 1999)9.