A study released by JAMA’s Substance Use and Addiction Journal on July 28, 2023 looked at 605,948 fatalities associated with alcohol use between 1999 and 2020. The findings indicated that men faced a 2.88 times higher mortality risk than women due to alcohol-related causes. However, the death rate among women surged at a rate of 14.7% between 2018 and 2020, whereas men experienced a 12.5% increase in fatalities over the corresponding two-year period.
In the US, alcohol abuse is the fourth leading cause of preventable death—following tobacco, poor diet and physical inactivity, and illegal drugs. This equates to more than 140,000 deaths each year.
Heavy alcohol use affects a person’s risk of premature death in several ways:
- Liver damage
- Cardiovascular disease
- Accidents and injuries
The initial stage of alcohol-related liver damage involves fat accumulation within liver cells. This condition, known as fatty liver or alcoholic steatosis, is reversible if alcohol consumption is reduced or stopped. However, continued heavy drinking can exacerbate this condition and set the stage for more severe liver damage.
With prolonged heavy alcohol use, fatty liver can progress to alcoholic hepatitis. This is an inflammation of the liver caused by the toxic effects of alcohol and its metabolites. Alcoholic hepatitis can range from mild to severe and can cause symptoms such as jaundice, abdominal pain, fever, and nausea.
Alcoholic hepatitis can further progress to cirrhosis, a late-stage liver disease characterized by the replacement of healthy liver tissue with scar tissue. Cirrhosis is irreversible and disrupts the liver’s structure and function. It can lead to complications such as portal hypertension (high blood pressure in the liver’s blood vessels), ascites (accumulation of fluid in the abdomen), and hepatic encephalopathy (brain dysfunction due to liver failure).
Chronic heavy alcohol consumption is a known risk factor for high blood pressure. Hypertension strains the heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular complications. Over time, uncontrolled high blood pressure can contribute to premature death by exacerbating existing health conditions.
Alcohol can also disrupt the electrical signals that regulate the heart’s rhythm, leading to irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias. Severe arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, can increase the risk of blood clots, stroke, and heart failure, all of which can have fatal outcomes.
Additionally, heavy and prolonged alcohol consumption can weaken the heart muscle. Known as cardiomyopathy, this reduces the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively, leading to heart failure.
Alcohol itself is considered a carcinogen, meaning it has the potential to cause cancer. When the body metabolizes alcohol, it produces toxic byproducts that can damage DNA and disrupt normal cellular processes. This DNA damage can lead to the development of cancerous cells over time.
Chronic and heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of various types of cancer, including:
- Head and neck cancer
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colon and rectal cancers
Accidents and Injuries
Alcohol use disorders (AUD) can significantly increase the risk of premature death from accidents and injuries due to their impact on cognitive and motor functions, impaired judgment, coordination, and risky behaviors. When alcohol impairs an individual’s ability to make sound decisions and carry out tasks safely, accidents become more likely, and the consequences can be fatal.
Drunk driving is the most common cause of alcohol-related accidental death, but it’s far from the only concern. Other causes of accidental death include:
- Fires or burns
- Injuries from violent confrontations
AUD is often accompanied by mental health disorders, with depression being one of the most common. Heavy alcohol consumption can exacerbate depressive symptoms and increase the risk of developing a major depressive disorder. The combination of alcohol-induced depressive states and preexisting mental health conditions can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Alcohol impairs cognitive functions, including judgment and decision-making. This impaired cognitive state can lead to distorted perceptions of reality, making individuals with AUD more susceptible to suicidal ideation and less likely to consider the consequences of their actions. Social isolation can further increase the risk of suicide, as individuals may lack the support network needed to cope with their struggles.
Waypoint Recovery Center Offers Evidence-Based Care for Men and Women With Alcohol Use Disorders
If you or someone you love are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, please know that there is always hope for recovery. Waypoint Recovery Center’s South Carolina drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility offers a full continuum of care for men and women with alcohol use disorders, including care for co-occurring mental health conditions. Contact us today to learn how our experienced addiction treatment specialists can help.