Long-Term Health Risks after Years of Alcohol
There seems to be a harmful and cumulative effect of drinking alcohol over time. That’s why it’s not just about people being conservative in how much people drink.
It may be time to lower the threshold of what is considered “moderate” drinking. It might be time to entertain the concept that no level of drinking has any benefit or contribution to one’s health and well-being whatsoever. Regular alcohol consumption increases the risks of liver cirrhosis, gastrointestinal diseases, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and some types of cancer. Furthermore, there is data that suggests even moderate drinking reduces lifespan.
There is no doubt that drinking to excess creates harm and risk, both for the person consuming alcohol and those around them. Unfortunately, young people are not only drinking more alcohol, but they’re also consuming alcohol at a younger age.
Furthermore, new data suggests that even moderate drinking can have detrimental long-term health effects. Many of these health problems may not manifest until later on in life. If people are drinking more alcohol at younger ages, and if that trend continues, what is the health condition of today’s younger generation going to look like 30 to 60 years from now?
Alcohol Addiction and Abuse—A Growing Problem for Young People
Alcohol addiction has become a serious problem in the United States. And to make matters worse, new data suggests that there are long-term effects of even just moderate alcohol use. That is particularly concerning because young people are being exposed to alcohol at younger ages and in increasing numbers. For some of the statistics on young people and alcohol:1
- More babies are being born to alcohol-addicted mothers than in previous decades. In 1996, there were about three Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) cases for every 1,000 births. But more recent reports suggest that as many as 20 to even 50 babies are born with FAS for every 1,000 births.
- Underage drinking is a severe problem, not only because it is illegal but because the younger someone is when they are exposed to alcohol, the more likely they are to become addicted to alcohol later on in life. According to the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), about 7.1 million young people ages 12 to 20 admitted to drinking at least once in the past month. That’s roughly 20 percent of the American population under the age of 21 who are drinking alcohol monthly. What’s more, about 861,000 Americans under the age of 20 are addicted to alcohol.
- Much of alcohol abuse among young people is the result of growing up in a household where alcohol misuse is present. More than ten percent of U.S. children live with at least one parent who drinks alcohol to excess.
- About twenty percent of college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. About 97,000 college students experience alcohol-related sexual assault each year, and another 696,000 college students experience alcohol-related violent assault each year. And sadly, about 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries and accidents, including motor-vehicle crashes.
- Alcohol misuse in the present creates more harm for the person later on down the road. And more young people are drinking to excess and drinking to excess at younger ages. If this trend continues, the Millennials and Generation Z will have effectively set themselves up for dangerous health problems as they age.
Alcohol’s Cumulative Effect on the Body
There seems to be a harmful and cumulative effect of drinking alcohol over time. That’s why it’s not just about people being conservative in how much people drink; it’s also about drinking less often. For example, it’s widely known that the more alcohol a person consumes at one time, the higher the heart rate gets, and the more the liver and kidneys are harmed. Heavy drinking can lead to heart problems (such as arrhythmias), kidney failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and a wide range of other health difficulties.2 But what about moderate drinking, but done over time? As it turns out, simply not drinking to excess is not enough. People who drink in moderation but who drink often set themselves up for health problems later on in life and a shorter life span too. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast. Most of these cancers would likely not crop up until later in life, but wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t crop up at all?
Alcohol Consumption and Life Expectancy
It may be time to lower the threshold of what is considered “moderate” drinking. It might be time to entertain the concept that no level of drinking has any benefit or contribution to one’s health and well-being whatsoever. Regular alcohol consumption increases the risks of liver cirrhosis, gastrointestinal diseases, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and some types of cancer. Furthermore, there is data that suggests even moderate drinking reduces lifespan. According to the research, people who consume more than ten drinks per week died one to two years earlier than those who drank five drinks or fewer per week. Furthermore, those who consumed eighteen or more drinks per week cut their life expectancy by four to five years.3 The Omni Calculator breaks down alcohol’s effect on lifespan into even more specific numbers. According to that calculator, someone who drinks every day loses several hours off of their lifespan every time they drink.4 The effects will vary from person to person, but the critical thing to remember here is that frequent alcohol consumption does reduce life expectancy.
Seeking Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
There is really no reason to consume alcohol with any regularity, even if one uses the substance in moderation. There are too many adverse effects, and there are no viable benefits or positive results of drinking alcohol. For those who have struggled with alcohol or drugs in the past, a substance-free life is the only way to ensure that one will stay clean. And for those who are currently using substances or who have relapsed, entering a drug and alcohol treatment center as soon as possible is key to breaking away from substances. If you know someone who is drinking to excess, no matter their age or circumstances, do your best to get them into a drug and alcohol treatment center as soon as possible. And if you know someone who is drinking alcohol with any regularity at all, even if they seem in control of their consumption, please encourage them to give it up. They’ll likely live a longer, healthier, and happier life if they do.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, (2021) “Alcohol Use in the United States”. NIH Article ↩︎
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men’s Health Watch, (2018) “Alcohol and heart health”. Harvard Health Publishing Article ↩︎
Jason Connor, et al. Wayne Hall - The University of Queensland Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, QLD, Australia (JC, WH); Faculty of Medicine, The University of Queensland, Herston, QLD, Australia (JC); and The National Addiction Centre, King’s College London, London, UK (WH), (2018) “Thresholds for safer alcohol use might need lowering”. The Lancet Journal ↩︎
Dominika Miszewska MD, PhD Candidate et al., Reviewed by Jack Bowater MPharm (2022) “Addiction Calculator”. The ‘Omni calculator’ ↩︎