According to the World Health Organization, who publishes the Global status report on alcohol and health, more than three million lives are lost from alcohol-related causes each year.1 Comparatively, half a million lives a year are lost due to drug use.
One might think that a substance that kills six times as many people as drugs would be talked about more than it is. But it isn’t, mostly because alcohol usually kills far more slowly than drugs. A drug overdose is dramatic and immediate. It could take a person years or even decades to kill themselves with alcohol.
Also, alcohol is legal and its use is deeply ingrained in most cultures. This may make it more difficult to acknowledge that a person has terminated their life with excessive consumption of alcohol. That person’s immediate family has probably observed this fact, however, as they lived with this individual’s decline, day after day.
Facts about Alcohol Deaths
- Far more men died from alcohol consumption than women—2.3 million vs. 700,000.
- Nineteen percent of these deaths resulted from cardiovascular diseases stemming from alcohol consumption.
- More than 12% of these deaths were caused by alcohol-related cancers.
- Among those aged 20 to 39 who died, nearly 14% of their deaths were attributed to alcohol.
- Whenever a person dies prematurely (considered at 69 years or younger), 7.2% of the time, they die of an alcohol-related cause.
- In all, harmful use of alcohol accounts for 7.1% of male deaths and 2.2% of female deaths, globally.
It is certain that a young adult reaching their twenty-first birthday and going out celebrating with friends is not considering that they are engaging in a life-threatening activity. For most of these people, it’s true—they survive. But it would be good for a person to know about the lives stolen away by alcohol before they ever take their first drink.
How Does Alcohol Kill?
- Immune System Suppression: Alcohol consumption suppresses a person’s immune system, which can increase their risk of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, which can be deadly. The greater quantity of alcohol that is consumed, the more risk there is. Those who have an alcohol use disorder have three times the risk of developing tuberculosis.
- Cardiovascular Diseases: Alcohol increases the risk of hypertension, cardiomyopathy, atrial fibrillation and stroke. Small quantities of alcohol consumption may reduce risk, while higher volumes increase risk.
- Cancers: Alcohol consumption has been directly linked to cancers of the mouth, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon and rectum. It has also been linked to breast cancer among females. Even a moderate level of alcohol consumption increases the risk of female breast cancer.
It is thought that alcohol damages DNA and inhibits the repair process that might reverse that damage. When alcohol is present, the body is also unable to absorb nutrients that might protect it from developing cancer, such as vitamins A, C, D, E and folate.3
One study attributed 4% of the world’s newly diagnosed cases of these cancers to alcohol consumption, calculating that alcohol was the cause of cancer for 741,00 people in 2020. Here too, men were subject to far more cases of alcohol-related cancer than women. But of the 172,000 cancer cases in women, more than half were breast cancer.3
- Liver Disease: This one is better known than many other alcohol-related causes of death. Alcohol is the top cause of liver disease. Acute alcoholic hepatitis has a death rate as high as 50%.
- Mental Disorders: Heavy alcohol users have higher risks of dementia and suicide. After a person drinks alcohol, they have a seven-times greater risk for a suicide attempt. This risk increases to a 37-fold greater risk after they have drunk a high volume of alcohol.
- Injuries: It’s likely that everyone has heard of people being killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents. Drivers who have been drinking, drunk passengers and drunk pedestrians all contribute to these losses. Injuries resulting from violence also contribute to this loss of life. There is an enormous relationship between alcohol use and aggression which can often lead to fights, especially between different parties who have both been drinking. The greater the blood alcohol concentration, the greater the risk of violence.
- Alcohol Poisoning: Just like with drug overdoses, it is possible to overdose on alcohol. Very heavy doses of alcohol can affect breathing and heart rate and induce a coma or death. Some people who pass out after drinking may vomit and inhale the vomited material which can lead to their death. It’s not uncommon for young people to die when their friends leave them to “sleep it off.” They may be found dead in the morning instead.
Drinking Alcohol Causes Brain Damage
Anyone who has drunk a little too much has realized that alcohol has a profound effect on the brain.4 Their motor skills become impaired, they slur their speech, they are unable to react quickly to changes around them. If they drink even more, they may fall, become injured or pass out. The time they spent drunk may be lost to memory.
One survey of more than 700 college undergraduates found that of those that had ever consumed alcohol, more than half reported blacking out at some point. Of those who had drunk alcohol in the two weeks right before the survey, one in ten reported having blacked out after drinking. From their friends, they discovered they had engaged in dangerous or even potentially deadly activities like vandalism, unsafe sex or driving.
After long periods of drinking, permanent brain disorders are possible. Wernicke’s encephalopathy, for example, causes mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, and difficulty with muscle coordination.4
Another type of alcohol-related brain injury is called Korsakoff’s psychosis. This injury causes memory problems and an inability to learn.
Some people with these types of permanent brain damage cannot improve with treatment and must receive permanent care.
Withdrawal from Alcohol
While medical support and supervision are desirable while a person is withdrawing from most addictive substances, when they are withdrawing from heavy alcohol use, this support is essential. In its more severe form, alcohol withdrawal can result in tremors, nausea, high heart rate, increased blood pressure and hallucinations.5
About five percent of those individuals withdrawing from alcohol will develop delirium tremens which includes very high heart rate, profound confusion, high fever, convulsions and circulatory collapse. Delirium tremens can be fatal unless there is the right support, with death caused by respiratory or cardiovascular collapse or arrhythmias. Amazingly, despite all these harms and dangers, alcohol consumption is common in most countries around the world. More than half of adult men and women (18 and older) in America are current drinkers. About a quarter are heavy drinkers. In all, more than 28 million Americans aged 12 and older are drinking enough to cause themselves harm—yet they don’t stop.6
As with so many problems people get themselves into, education and intervention can help them escape. Young people should realize that alcohol is a damaging, cancer-causing substance so they know to moderate their use. And they should learn this fact well before they ever start drinking.
A person who drinks enough to harm themselves and who has lost the ability to cease drinking when they want to needs help. They need support and rehabilitation Very often, it takes an intervention to get through to them. Interventions with experienced, professional personnel can work when all the family’s appeals have not succeeded. And that intervention can mark the beginning of a new, sober life for the individual and a more enjoyable life for their family.
London Royal College of Physicians (UK). “Alcohol Use Disorders: Diagnosis and Clinical Management of Alcohol-Related Physical Complications [Internet].” National Clinical Guidelines Centre (UK). 2010, Publication ↩︎