Life Expectancy of an Alcoholic [Factors & Risks]

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Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to a marked reduction in the life quality of an alcoholic. Life expectancy is also affected, with the average lifespan being 24–28 years shorter than for people with low alcohol intake.

These findings are corroborated by multiple studies on the effects of alcohol abuse on the subjects’ physical and mental health.

Here’s how drinking too much alcohol increases mortality risk and how to avoid the complications of alcohol use disorder (AUD).

How Long Does a Heavy Drinker Live?

There’s no definite way of knowing how long a person can survive the effects of alcohol overconsumption. Aside from drinking alcohol, longevity is affected by genetic, environmental, and other health factors.

That said, there’s an established link between excessive drinking and a reduction in a person’s life expectancy.

Studies and reports following people from Scandinavian countries and the United States found a similar pattern of higher mortality among people suffering from alcohol abuse, making their average life span 24–28 years shorter.

Some of this mortality risk is due to long-term health problems stemming from alcohol misuse, like cardiovascular diseases, liver disease, and cancer.

In addition, vehicular accidents due to drunk driving, acute alcohol poisoning, and suicide are also major contributors to alcohol-related fatalities.

Together, these factors widen the difference in the average life expectancy between people with AUD and their healthy counterparts.

To understand how excessive alcohol consumption reduces the quality of life, here are some of the effects of alcohol on both the physical and mental health of people with AUD.

Effects of Alcohol on Physical Health

Alcohol is a proven toxin due to the release of noxious byproducts during its metabolism. The accumulation of these toxic metabolites, due to frequent binge drinking or long-term alcohol abuse, causes several physiological symptoms that progress into disease if left untreated.

Drinking alcohol in excessive amounts can affect the following:

Cardiovascular System

The heart and blood vessels are responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood to the body’s organs and sending deoxygenated blood full of metabolic waste products to the lungs, liver, and kidneys.

Alcohol consumption affects the chemical balance that controls how fast the blood travels through this system. High blood pressure, coronary heart disease, weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), heart failure, and stroke are all potential results of heavy drinking.

Liver

The liver is the body’s poison-control center. It produces enzymes that break down toxic substances, neutralizing their effects and preparing them for excretion by the kidneys.

When people drink alcohol in large quantities, they flood their bodies with a large amount of toxins at once. Liver tissue can respond by either:

  • Padding itself with fat (fatty liver disease),
  • Becoming inflamed and injured (alcoholic hepatitis), or
  • Changing the injured tissue into non-functional scar tissue (cirrhosis)

These stages don’t happen all at once but are gradual – listed from the least to the most dangerous. In fact, most people don’t notice any symptoms whatsoever until the liver is significantly damaged. The symptoms include weight loss, nausea and vomiting, and a yellow tinge to the skin and eye whites (jaundice).

Liver injury, especially end-stage liver disease, is a common cause of death among people suffering from AUD.

Pancreas

The pancreas is an accessory gland to the gastrointestinal tract that releases digestive enzymes as well as hormones to help the body break down food and utilize it for energy.

With heavy alcohol consumption, pancreatic ducts become clogged due to increased secretions. The enzymes produced by the pancreas irritate the organ and cause severe, painful, life-threatening inflammation.

Immune System

A report released by the Alcohol Research: Current Reviews (ARCR) Journal in 2015 discussed the effect of alcohol consumption on the immune system. It found that people who consume alcohol in large amounts suffered disruptions in how their bodies fought external sources of infection as well as their recovery from tissue injury.

The report focused on the respiratory pathway and how alcohol compromises the protective power of cells that sweep the upper airway (cilia), white blood cells, and the protective barrier of cells lining the lower airway. These combined effects result in a higher risk of contracting a respiratory disease such as pneumonia and suffering serious complications.

Brain Function

Alcohol affects brain function even in small quantities. Most people recognize the effect it has as feeling “buzzed” or “tipsy” after a couple of drinks.

That’s because alcohol reaches the brain in stages, the first of which causes delayed reactions and relaxation. It’s soon followed by a boost of confidence and lack of control, as alcohol impacts the function of the frontal lobe responsible for decision-making. When alcohol impairs the temporal and occipital lobes, it begins affecting the way a person sees, hears, and moves.

These effects are temporary and the brain usually recovers completely from them within a few hours, provided no more alcohol is consumed. However, people who consume alcohol more frequently compound its effects on the brain, causing long-term brain damage.

People with a severe alcohol addiction can suffer from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) which causes amnesia, eyesight issues, confusion, and hallucinations. They may also create false memories, believing they’re real.

Weight Control

Alcoholic beverages are high in calories and easy to absorb by the gut, which adds a higher caloric surplus from “empty” calories that don’t have any nutritional value. Cocktails, mixed drinks, and pre-packaged, ready-to-drink beverages are usually also high in sugar content.

Drinking can also lead to cravings for salty, greasy foods, especially during morning hangovers after a binge drinking session. These foods calm the intense hunger and electrolyte loss that are caused by urination due to the high alcohol volume.

On a molecular level, alcohol is treated as a primary source of fuel, which delays the metabolism of fat stores in the body. This can lead to wasted weight loss efforts and the inability to gain control over one’s BMI.

Paradoxically, heavy drinkers are usually malnourished due to the appetite-curbing effects of alcohol. This prevents them from eating balanced diets and reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, manifesting in several nutritional deficiencies, such as thiamin (vitamin B1), vitamin B12, folic acid, and zinc deficiencies.

Cancer Risk

The link between drinking and cancer has been established, with an emphasis on:

  • Mouth and throat cancer.
  • Voice box cancer.
  • Esophageal cancer.
  • Colon and rectum cancer.
  • Liver and pancreatic cancer.
  • Breast cancer.

The main reason behind the elevated risk is the metabolic compound called acetaldehyde that results from alcohol breakdown. This compound can change the molecular structure of DNA, triggering unusual division and spreading patterns, leading to malignancy.

These findings aren’t limited to people who consume alcohol in large amounts only, moderate drinking (one to two drinks a day) is also implicated in a higher risk of breast cancer.

Effects of Alcohol on Mental Health

Alcohol dependence has a significant psychological factor to it, where the person with the problem has trouble letting go of their habit due to the comfort, familiarity, or psychological relief it provides.

The mental component of alcohol’s effects on the body manifests in the form of:

Exacerbation of Mental Illness

Many people suffering from mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), often view the effects of alcohol as relieving. For a few hours, the brain becomes less active, resulting in fewer unwelcome thoughts and feelings.

However, these effects are temporary. The person who uses alcohol as a form of self-medication soon finds their feelings returning, alongside guilt and shame for their actions which happened while intoxicated. This can cause continuous cycles of sobriety and relapse that damage the person’s will and self-control, leading to worse symptoms of mental illness.

Impulse Control

The relationship between alcohol use disorders and impulsivity is a two-way street. On the one hand, studies have shown that forgoing delayed gratification and a higher propensity for impulsive decisions are a direct cause of alcohol dependence issues.

On the other hand, as alcohol use increases, it impairs cognitive functions linked to decision-making. This means that a person under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other consciousness-altering substances can make impulsive decisions because they can’t fully utilize their frontal lobe.

The effect of alcohol on impulse control shows in the form of engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex, drunk driving, gambling, or starting physical altercations.

Suicidal Ideation

Developing an emotional dependence on alcohol might soon turn into a physical dependence that causes withdrawal symptoms once alcohol consumption stops or decreases. This, alongside unpleasant feelings stemming from untreated mental illness and an increased tendency for reckless behavior, are all reasons why many people with AUD succumb to suicide.

In an alarming statistic, it’s estimated that ⅓ of all cases of suicide in the United States in 2019 are linked to alcohol abuse. This figure translates to nearly 16,000 lives lost.

Final Words

The persistent use of alcohol as a method to self-medicate mental illness and a lack of awareness about its fatal side effects remain obstacles in the face of harm reduction. The result is a staggering difference between the average life expectancy of an alcoholic versus that of a healthy person.

If you, or a loved one, want to quit drinking to avoid the physical and mental risks of alcohol use disorders, book an appointment today with one of CuredNation’s certified clinicians.

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