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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

Health Risks of Alcohol: 12 Health Problems Associated with Chronic Heavy Drinking


Alcohol is toxic to liver cells, and many heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis, a sometimes-lethal condition in which the liver is so heavily scarred that it is unable to function. But it's hard to predict which drinkers will develop cirrhosis. "Some people who drink huge amounts never get cirrhosis, and some who don't drink very much do get it," Saitz says. For some unknown reason, women seem to be especially vulnerable.


As people age, their brains shrink, on average, at a rate of about 1.9% per decade. That's considered normal. But heavy drinking speeds the shrinkage of certain key regions in the brain, resulting in memory loss and other symptoms of dementia.

Heavy drinking can also lead to subtle but potentially debilitating deficits in the ability to plan, make judgments, solve problems, and perform other aspects of "executive function," which are "the higher-order abilities that allow us to maximize our function as human beings," Garbutt says.

In addition to the "nonspecific" dementia that stems from brain atrophy, heavy drinking can cause nutritional deficiencies so severe that they trigger other forms of dementia.


It's long been known that heavy drinking often goes hand in hand with depression, but there has been debate about which came first -- the drinking or the depression. One theory is that depressed people turned to alcohol in an attempt to "self-medicate" to ease their emotional pain. But a large study from New Zealand showed that it was probably the other way around -- that is, heavy drinking led to depression.

Research has also shown that depression improves when heavy drinkers go on the wagon, Saitz says.


Heavy drinking can cause epilepsy and can trigger seizures even in people who don't have epilepsy. It can also interfere with the action of the medications used to treat convulsions.


A painful condition, gout is caused by the formation of uric acid crystals in the joints. Although some cases are largely hereditary, alcohol and other dietary factors seem to play a role. Alcohol also seems to aggravate existing cases of gout.

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