Studies have shown that both long-term and short-term alcohol consumption affect every organ in the body in one way or another (“College Drinking – Changing the Culture”, 2012). Some of the most commonly affected organs are the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, stomach, kidneys, and lungs (“College Drinking – Changing the Culture”, 2012). Alcohol consumption has also been shown to affect one’s mental health as well as cause damage to the developing fetus (Fergusson, 2009). “Short-term” alcohol abuse refers alcohol consumption over days, weeks, or a few months; while “long-term” alcohol abuse is referring to high consumption of alcohol over several months to several years. Alcohol abuse also goes beyond the human body; it touches every part of society, particularly families and the economy, and likely has affected every human being in way or another.
Organs Affected by Long-Term Alcohol Consumption
The short-term effects of alcohol consumption are more obvious because they are the effects that are seen when someone is intoxicated: slurred speech, lack of balance, poor memory, and blurred vision. The long-term effects of alcohol consumption on the brain are a little more subtle. One of the most common findings amongst long-term alcohol consumers is thiamine deficiency (thiamine is also known as vitamin B1), which is an essential nutrient for all tissues in the body (“Alcohol Alert”, 2004).
The approximately 80 percent of alcoholics that have a thiamine deficiency are at a great risk of developing Wernike-Korsakoff Syndrome, a disease that consists of two syndromes, Wernike’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis (“Alcohol Alert”, 2004). Wernike’s encephalopathy causes mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, and difficulty with muscle coordination, which 80-90 percent of the time develops into Korsakoff’s psychosis, a chronic syndrome characterized by memory and learning problems (“Alcohol Alert”, 2004).
While studies have shown in recent years that the antioxidants found in red wine can actually decrease one’s risk of developing heart disease, The American Heart Association states, “Drinking too much alcohol can raise the levels of some fats in the blood (triglycerides). It can also lead to high blood pressure, heart failure and an increased calorie intake…Excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to stroke. Other serious problems include fetal alcohol syndrome, cardiomyopathy, cardiac arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death” (American Heart Association, 2012).
Alcohol can also affect the heart indirectly. Long-term alcohol consumption can lead to conditions such as obesity and/or diabetes, which put one at a greater risk of developing coronary artery disease (American Heart Association, 2012).
The liver is the organ in your body that filters out toxins, such as alcohol, from the blood. Drinking more alcohol than the liver can process can actually damage liver cells, and over a long period of time can cause alcohol related liver diseases such as fatty liver disease (build up of extra fat in liver cells), alcoholic hepatitis (swelling and damage of the liver), and alcoholic cirrhosis (scarring of the liver where soft healthy tissue is replaced with hard scar tissue) (American Liver Foundation, 2011). The damaged liver cells caused from long-term alcohol abuse can lead to inflammation, increasing the risk of liver cancer (“Alcohol Use and Cancer”, 2012).
Liver disease can be fatal, and complications from liver disease may include build up of fluid in the abdomen, bleeding from veins in the esophagus or stomach, an enlarged spleen, high blood pressure in the liver, brain disorders or coma (from hepatic encephalopathy), and/or kidney failure (American Liver Foundation, 2011).
Long-term alcohol consumption can lead to chronic pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis can result from blockages in the pancreatic duct, although in alcoholics it is more commonly caused by damage to the pancreatic tissue due to the by-products of alcohol metabolism (Apte, 1997). Alcohol abuse is the most common cause for patients with chronic pancreatitis, and can usually be treated with diet modifications (avoiding alcohol and low fat diets) and medications for pain relief, without requiring surgical intervention (Freedman, 2012). Some studies even claim that long-term alcohol consumption can increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, although the studies on these claims have shown only a minor increased risk and have been mostly inconclusive (Ye, 2002).
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is the first stop that our foods and beverages have in the body. Alcohol usually moves from the stomach to the small intestine rather quickly, however sometimes alcohol is left behind and can actually irritate the inner lining of the stomach (“College Drinking – Changing the Culture”, 2012). Unabsorbed alcohol left in the stomach can also increase digestive juices (hydrochloric acid), halt the digestive process and rob the body of necessary nutrients, and react with medications (such as aspirin) causing gastritis, ulcers, or severe bleeding (“College Drinking – Changing the Culture”, 2012).
Alcohol has even been linked to cancers in the GI tract. Cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), and esophagus are believed to especially increase the risk of cancers of smokers because of the possibility that alcohol acts as a solvent for the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes, allowing these harmful chemicals to penetrate the inner linings of the digestive tract (“Alcohol Use and Cancer”, 2012). Bacteria in the colon and rectum can convert alcohol into large amounts of acetaldehyde, a chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in some lab studies (“Alcohol Use and Cancer”, 2012).
Long-term alcohol consumption has also been shown to compromise kidney function, particularly in patients with established liver disease (Epstein, 1997). Some studies have even shown that alcohol abuse can altering the form and structure of the kidneys, noting that many alcoholics have increased kidney size and/or swelling compared to non-alcoholics (Epstein, 1997). In Dr. Murray Epstein’s research on kidney function and alcohol abuse he has stated, “Chronic alcoholic patients may experience low blood concentrations of key electrolytes as well as potentially severe alterations in the body’s acid-base balance. In addition, alcohol can disrupt the hormonal control mechanisms that govern kidney function” (Epstein, 1997).
One of the systems that is not as widely linked to alcohol consumption is the respiratory system, however recent studies have helped establish this link. For example, recent studies have shown that alcoholics are actually more prone to lung infections (such as pneumonia) (Joshi, 2007). More specifically, long-term alcohol consumption can decrease the levels of glutathione (an important antioxidant) in the lungs by as much as 80-90 percent (Joshi, 2007), which in turn leaves the lungs more susceptible to infection. Some pulmonologists have even found that prolonged and heavy exposure to alcohol can complicate asthma management, as well as worsen lung function and increase mortality in patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) (Sisson, 2007). The reason why the effects of long-term alcohol consumption on the lungs is not as widely studied is because most often the lung impairment goes undetected until acutely insulted by trauma or sepsis (system wide infection) (Joshi, 2007).
Recent studies are now showing that even a few alcoholic drinks can increase the risk of breast cancer in women, particularly of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer (“Drinking Alcohol”, 2012). Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer (“Drinking Alcohol”, 2012). According to breastcancer.org, “Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each day” (“Drinking Alcohol”, 2012).
The Effect of Alcohol Abuse on Society
Alcoholism affects each member of the family, and can even affect unborn children. The most commonly affected family members are the spouses and children of alcoholics (Berger, Silverstein, and Wekesser, 2003). Studies have shown that some of the most common symptoms found amongst spouses of alcoholics are feelings of hatred, self-pity, avoidance of social contacts, suffering from exhaustion, and/or becoming physically or mentally ill (Berger, Silverstein, and Wekesser, 2003). Children of alcoholics commonly express symptoms such as low self-esteem, loneliness, guilt, feelings of helplessness, fears of abandonment, poor performance in school, and/or chronic depression (Berger, Silverstein, and Wekesser, 2003).
Unborn children can be affected by alcohol abuse when a woman drinks a significant amount of alcohol during the pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most common disorder related to alcohol use during pregnancy. A baby that has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome may have the following symptoms: poor developmental growth in the womb and after birth, decreased muscle tone and poor coordination, delayed development, heart defects such as ventricular septal defect (VSD) or atrial septal defect (ASD), and/or problems with facial features (“Fetal alcohol syndrome”, 2012).
In 2011 the U.S. Centers for disease Control (the CDC) reported that alcohol abuse costs the United States approximately $223.5 billion a year, with the government paying more than 60% of the health care costs of alcohol abusers (Fox, 2011). This enormous cost includes, but is not limited to, factors such as lost productivity due to alcohol-related illnesses, medical/health consequences of alcohol abuse, lost productivity of criminals/victims from crimes involving alcohol, and motor vehicle accidents (fatal and non-fatal) in which alcohol was involved (“Economic Costs of Alcohol Abuse in the United States”, 2000).
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