Long-term heavy drinkers put themselves at risk for developing several health problems. Long-term heavy drinking affects almost every system in the body including the nervous, digestive, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and endocrine systems. Perhaps the most well-known disease related to heavy consumption of alcohol is cirrhosis of the liver in which liver cells to die off and are replaced by permanent non-functioning scar tissue. The liver soon becomes less able to cleanse the blood and regulate its composition.
Heavy drinking has also been associated with some forms of:
- Cancer-especially cancer of the liver, esophagus, throat, and larynx (DHHS)
- Reproductive and Sexual Dysfunction
- Digestive Problems
- High blood pressure
- Vitamin Deficiencies
- Damage to heart and cardiovascular system (there is strong evidence that light to moderate intake of alcohol reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease in older adults, but the health risks multiply with heavy use) (DHHS)
- Brain damage
- Disorders of the immune system
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is also known as Alocohol Related Dementia. Despite being caused by B vitamin thiamine deficiency, WKS is often associated with alcoholism because of the prevalence of long term alcoholics with the disorder. With a high incidence of malnutrition among alcoholics, the disorder remains associated with alcoholism. However, the association between the alcoholism and dementia is still unlcear.
- mental confusion
- impaired short term memory
- inablity to learn new information or tasks
- lack of muscle coordination
- rapid eye movements or paralysis of eye muscles
- disables fine muscle functions
When observing for signs of the disorder or any alcohol-related dementia, it should be done within 60 days of the person's last drink. Criteria for determining if the person has a "significant" alcohol history is 35 drinks per week for men and 28 drinks per week for women for atleast five years. In relation to the dementia, this period of heavy drinking should have occurred within 3 years of the first symptoms. If caught early, some symptoms are treatable with alcohol abstinence and thiamine replacement therapy. More severe symptoms like confusion and memory loss may take longer to recover if it does at all. In late stages of the disorder, where severe damage to the brain is seen, these symtpoms are irreversible.
In general, people react differently to alcohol based on multiple factors including sex, race, and weight. The liver metabolizes alcohol after consumption reducing its toxic effects and its ability to do so is based on the factors stated above. However, in incidences of high alcohol consumption seen in alcoholics, damage to the liver occurs. Alcoholic liver disease begins with "fatty liver," then can progress to alcoholic hepatitis and then to cirrhosis. The risk for progressing through these stages is dependent on the amount and regularity of alcohol intake. Past studies have also suggested that more women develop liver disease than men because of their body's reaction to alcohol; women have higher blood alcohol concentrations because of relatively more body fat and less water.
With any major alcohol consumption, even over a few days, a condition develops that is highlighted by the liver cells being swollen with fat globules and water. Other causes of fatty liver, besides alcohol, include obesity, drugs, and diabetes. In the case of alcohol, the condition is reversible when drinking is stopped.
In the sense of the word itself, hepaitis is the inflammation of the liver. Just because an individual develops fattly liver, doesn't necessarily mean that alcoholic hepatitis will develop. With the onset of the disease, it ususally lasts for one to two weeks but can last longer and eventually lead to cirrhosis or more permanent damage. Diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis is usually done by liver biopsy with help from blood tests.
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal pain and tenderness
With permanent damage to the liver, blood flow is reduced and normal functioning is impaired. Cirrhosis is consists of this permanent damage to the liver in which normal liver structures are replaced and changed by scar tissue. Despite having multiple causes, excessive alcohol intake is the most common. Even among social drinkers, cirrhosis can develop and is affected by the amount consumed, regularity of consumption, and nutritional state.
Because scar tissue is fairly permanent, treatment of the disease often focuses on preventing the progression of the disease and treating complications that may be present.In alcoholic cirrhosis, treatment consists of abstinence from alcohol and wholesome diet.
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- weight loss
- liver enlargement
- increased sensitivity to drugs
- Ascites: due to the reduced blood flow through the liver fluid collects in the abdomen
- encephalopathy: an impending coma or mental confusion can develop
- hemorrhage of varices:the scar tissue in the liver increases pressure on the vessels in the esophagus causing them to be swollen or in some cases burst