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What Happens to You After 20 Years of Heavy Drinking?

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What is Considered Long-Term, Heavy Drinking?

Alcohol is an intoxicating chemical that can affect health. In 2019, almost 15 million people in the United States had an alcohol use problem.2 Globally, 3 million deaths occur every year from harmful alcohol use.2

The following all influence how a person responds to alcohol:

  • How much a person drinks
  • Genetic factors
  • Gender
  • Body mass
  • General state of health

Moderate drinking is unlikely to cause harm. However, long-term, heavy drinking can cause serious health issues. Chronic drinking is a leading preventable cause of death. More than 99,000 people in the U.S. died from alcohol use in 2020, with 92,000 deaths occurring from other drug overdoses.

Men should drink no more than two alcoholic drinks or less daily. Women should drink no more than one drink daily. Anything more is considered heavy drinking.3

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Effects of Alcohol Abuse

The effects of alcohol abuse are immediate and long-lasting. Whether you’re a first-time drinker or have been drinking daily for years, alcohol affects the body.

Excessive drinking puts you at risk of various potentially deadly consequences while you’re intoxicated. Long-term abuse can also contribute to serious medical, financial, and interpersonal problems.

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Alcohol can harm the central nervous system (CNS). Likewise, as a CNS depressant, alcohol can cause problems with thinking abilities and coordination. This can heighten the risk of a traumatic brain injury from an accident. 

Regular heavy drinking over many years also contributes to alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). This can lead to a neurodegenerative condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

This syndrome can cause:

  • Vision problems
  • Walking problems
  • Confusion
  • Severe memory loss
  • Difficulty with daily tasks

Liver Problems 

Liver disease is any condition that damages the liver and affects its function. Alcohol-related liver disease, in particular, describes conditions that occur due to the overconsumption of alcohol.

The liver is the primary organ for metabolizing alcohol. This is why it’s particularly at risk of damage. During metabolism, the liver transforms alcohol into acetaldehyde. This substance is both toxic and carcinogenic.

Pancreatitis

Heavy drinking can lead to pancreatitis, the painful inflammation of the pancreas. This often requires hospitalization.

Excessive alcohol consumption is one of the most common causes of pancreatitis. The inflammation is likely linked with chemical activities in the pancreas due to alcohol-related injury. For example, the premature activation of proenzymes to pancreatic enzymes.

Gastrointestinal problems

Drinking too much alcohol can also lead to digestive problems. This is primarily due to damage from inflammation and interference with gastric acid secretion.

Potential digestive problems include:5

  • Ulcers and bleeding
  • Heartburn and acid reflux swelling, like esophagitis, gastritis, and duodenitis
  • Malabsorption problems (fat, folic acid deficiency, anemia, etc.)
  • Increased risk of stomach cancer

Cancer

Alcohol is a carcinogen. This is a substance that causes cancer. Long-term heavy drinking increases the risk of developing alcohol-associated cancer.

Drinking alcohol may heighten the risk of the following cancers:4

  • Esophagus
  • Colon and rectum
  • Liver
  • Voice box
  • Breast
  • Mouth and throat

Additionally, many people who drink alcohol also use tobacco. Smoking can further heighten the risk of developing cancers of the upper gastrointestinal tract and respiratory tract.

Mental Health Problems

Alcohol and mental health are closely linked. Heavy drinking can affect your well-being.

Some people drink to self-medicate and relieve the symptoms of a mental health issue. However, the effect of alcohol is only temporary. Relying on alcohol to manage a mental health issue can become a problem.

As the effects of alcohol wear off, we often feel worse because alcohol withdrawal negatively affects the brain and body.

Alcohol abuse can contribute to signs and symptoms of:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosis
  • Antisocial behavior

This can occur both during intoxication and withdrawal. Sometimes these symptoms and signs last for weeks.

Legal Problems

There are many legal effects of alcoholism. 

Approximately 31 percent of state prisoners and 25 percent of federal prisoners reported drinking alcohol during their offense.8

For example, drinking alcohol can make someone more likely to engage in:

  • Domestic violence
  • Drunk driving
  • Robbery
  • Property damage
  • Drug offenses
  • Public-order offenses
  • Rape
  • Assault
  • Murder

Alcohol-related crime is also prevalent at universities. Annually, over 600,000 students between 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student under the influence of alcohol.7

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

There are various treatment options for alcohol abuse. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all option. Treatment options vary by person and the severity of the alcohol abuse problem.

Rehab

Rehab usually begins with a detox program to medically manage withdrawal symptoms. Typically, detox takes between 2 and 7 days.6

Medication may be necessary to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Detox usually takes place at a treatment center or hospital.

Medications

There are various medications to help with recovery from alcoholism.6

Disulfiram

Disulfiram may help you stop drinking. However, it won’t cure alcohol use disorder or take away the urge to drink.

If you drink while taking disulfiram, the medication produces a severe physical reaction that may include:

  • Flushing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches

Naltrexone

Naltrexone is a medication that blocks the positive feelings alcohol causes. It may help prevent heavy drinking and lessen the urge to drink.6

Vivitrol is a version of naltrexone that’s injected once a month by a healthcare professional. The injectable version may be easier for people recovering from alcoholism to use consistently.

Acamprosate

Acamprosate may help you beat alcohol cravings once you stop drinking. Unlike disulfiram, acamprosate and naltrexone don’t make you feel ill after taking a drink.

Counseling

Psychological counseling and therapy for groups and individuals can help people better understand their problems with alcohol. Many people benefit from couples or family therapy as family support can be an essential part of recovery.6

Self-Care

Once sober, it can be easy to get caught up in the chaos of daily life and forget prioritizing self-care. Taking care of yourself may seem simple and easy. However, many struggle to find healthy ways to look after themselves, whether in recovery or not.

Self-care is different for everyone. For example, for some, self-care will be taking a long bath after coming out of a depressive episode. For others, it will be buying a ticket to watch a movie after a stressful week.

How Long Does It Take to Reverse Alcohol Damage?

If a person can abstain from drinking alcohol, significant damage may resolve. However, in other cases, significant damage may remain.

People with a history of alcohol abuse may have to deal with alcohol-related physical, emotional, and social issues for a long time, even if they stop drinking alcohol.

Maintaining sobriety for 5 to 7 years is the peak time when reversible changes can occur. However, most change usually occurs in the first year. Still, many brain changes can’t be reversed.

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Summary

  • Long-term, heavy drinking can cause serious health, legal, financial, and interpersonal issues
  • Men should drink no more than 2 drinks or less in a day
  • Women should drink 1 drink or less in a day
  • Excessive alcohol use can lead to health problems like accidents and injuries, cancer, brain damage, GI problems, and mental health problems
  • There are various treatments available for alcoholism, including rehab, medications, and counseling
  • In some cases, it’s possible to reverse alcohol damage. However, some changes are irreversible
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Updated on September 28, 2022
8 sources cited
  1. Alcohol Facts and Statistics, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022.
  2. Alcohol, World Health Organization (WHO), 2022.
  3. Drinking levels defined, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  4. Alcohol and cancer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  5. Alcohol Use and Your Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2022.
  6. Alcohol use disorder, Mayo Clinic, 2022.
  7. College drinking, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022.
  8. Alcohol and Drug Use and Treatment Reported by Prisoners: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.

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