Alcoholism is a chronic disease that has the ability to impact every aspect of an individual’s life, as well as the lives of those around the alcoholic. The effects are far reaching, from the immediate family, to the co-workers and various medical personnel who are responsible for providing treatment for the myriad of physical and psychological ailments that are associated with alcoholism. While the disease is 100 percent preventable through abstinence, the negative health implications appear to be insufficient in preventing individuals from consuming alcohol. The following paper will outline three areas impacted by the effects of alcoholism, with sufficient research to support the stance that alcoholism should be treated as a disease that affects society that has shown to be fatal.
Alcoholism is a chronic disease that has everlasting negative effects on an individual’s life. Alcoholism refers to the dependency of alcoholic beverages to such a degree that major aspects of one’s life are dramatically and repeatedly interfered with in a negative way. These aspects can include family relationships, work responsibility, and social relationships. Alcoholism has known physical, psychological, and social negative effects, which allows alcoholism to be classified as a disease. Despite the research that has been devoted to the ill effects of alcohol, the media and society continues to promote alcohol consumption as a way to “have fun,” when in reality, it can cause some serious issues in one’s life.
For the purposes of the current paper, binge drinking and heavy drinking will be defined using the CDC guidelines (CDC, 2013): binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks during a single occasion for women and five or more drinks in a single occasion for men; heavy drinking consists of one or more drinks per day for women and two or more drinks per day for men. While some studies have suggested that a small amount of alcohol can be beneficial for certain individuals, not everyone is able to stop at what has been deemed as the “medically beneficial” level of alcohol consumption and become addicted. Alcoholism is associated with a variety of negative effects on an individual’s well being; it has been proven to have the capability of destroying every aspect of life, and therefore excessive use of alcohol should not be encouraged.
Alcohol’s Effect on the Body
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH, 2010), alcohol use has the potential to affect a myriad of bodily systems, from the brain and heart, to the liver, pancreas, and immune system. Large quantities over a prolonged period of time can also be linked to an increase in a variety of cancers, including oral, esophageal, liver, and breast cancers (NIH, 2010). The swath of damage within the body ranges from acute to chronic, with some of the more damaging effects proving to be fatal. Not all damage from alcohol is easily seen by the individual or even those within the user’s social circle, however, there are some physical clues that can be used to provide insight into what is happening within the body.
There are several organs that are susceptible to damage from alcohol abuse, some of which may be irreversible. One of the organs that can become damaged is the liver, which has a variety of symptoms, some of which are visible, while others are not; some of the damage to the liver also affects the brain (NIH, 2010). The process of metabolizing alcohol releases a myriad of toxins into the system, some of which (primarily ammonia and manganese) damage liver cells. One outwardly visible sign that could serve as an indication of liver damage due to alcoholism is a change in skin appearance. A change in skin color, known as jaundice, can occur when there is damage to the liver (NIH, 2010). It is estimated that at least 20 percent of individuals who consume alcohol will develop liver problems such as cirrhosis and cancer, with the correlation appearing to be linked to the volume of alcohol that is consumed (NIH, 2010).
Another physical effect of alcohol that appears to be linked to the quantity consumed is the risk of various cancers. According to research on the relationship between alcoholism and the development of cancer, all-site cancer mortality was higher among groups consuming more than three drinks per day, compared to individuals who consume one drink (Breslow, Chen, Graubard, & Mukamal, 2011). The findings were similar between both genders, however, women appear to be more susceptible to the harmful carcinogenic effects of alcohol (Breslow, Chen, Graubard, & Mukamal, 2011). An analysis that examined the drinking patterns of 323,354 participants revealed that two percent (8362) deaths were attributed to either lung, colorectal, prostate, or breast cancer. While that number does not sound astonishingly high or unusual, individuals who consumed alcohol on a regular basis had a “15 percent increased risk of all-site cancer mortality in comparison with never drinkers” (Breslow, Chen, Graubard, & Mukamal, 2011, p. 1049).
Aside from the deaths that are associated with cancer that is attributed to excessive alcohol use, there are approximately 88,000 deaths due to excessive alcohol consumption annually within the United States, making alcoholism the third leading cause of death that is considered to be lifestyle-related (CDC, 2013). However, not all of the health effects caused by alcohol lead to mortality. Unintentional injuries, intimate partner violence, child abuse, engaging in risky sexual behavior, miscarriage, and alcohol poisoning are some of the immediate effects that are commonly associated with binge drinking (CDC, 2013). Long-term health risks of excessive alcohol consumption include the aforementioned increase in cancer risk, liver diseases, cardiovascular problems (myocardial infarction and hypertension), and gastrointestinal problems (CDC, 2013). Alcohol consumption has a huge impact on physical health, leading to many health problems, many of which are detrimental to the individual’s well-being or can prove to be fatal.
Social Problems Attributed to Alcoholism
While the physical effects can take their toll on the individual who is addicted to alcohol, the social problems may be worse, as the problems not only affect the alcoholic, but they can also impact the lives of those around the alcoholic, both locally and globally. According to the 2004 World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Alcohol, social consequences associated with alcoholism include “traffic accidents, workplace-related problems, family and domestic problems, and interpersonal violence” (WHO, 2004). However, other social concerns attributed to alcoholism may not directly impact the alcoholic, but rather those around him or her, such as sober individuals who are passengers involved in an accident with an individual who has been drinking, family members who are affected by the alcoholic not being able to fulfill his or her role, and victims of violence perpetrated by the alcoholic (WHO, 2004).
Alcoholism and heavy drinking can lead to decreased productivity, increase in the number of sick days and accidents that occur on the job, with coworkers left to pick up the slack. Heavy drinking has also been associated with higher rates of unemployment, which may be due to the increase in absences and decreased productivity and lack of self-direction (WHO, 2004), which suggests that there may be a vicious cycle among alcoholics as it pertains to their work ethic. A global assessment of the impact of alcoholism has in the workplace revealed that alcoholism accounts for roughly 20 percent of absenteeism and nearly half of all workplace accidents (WHO, 2004). The effect of alcoholism in the workplace can not only be dangerous for the individual, but it puts the coworkers of the alcoholic at risk too.
The family of the alcoholic often pays the toll when the alcoholic is active in their disease, with rates of violence, lack of presence and follow through with responsibilities, as well as the possibility of inflicting adverse health and psychological effects on the children in the household, as well as those who have yet to be born as in the case of fetal alcohol syndrome. The direct and indirect effects of alcoholism on the family can be far reaching, chronic, and costly, with an increase in medical expenses due to interpersonal violence and the loss of income due to unemployment. The family of the alcoholic often reports feelings of anxiety, fear, and depression in response to the actions (physical and/or verbal aggression, money issues) of the alcoholic (WHO, 2004). Some of the familial impact appears to increase when the alcoholic is the male figure in the household, as risks of violence, HIV infection, and loss of income are more prevalent when the alcoholic is the male head of household (WHO, 2004). Losing income due to absenteeism, poor performance, or unemployment may be difficult and the effects of such can include an increase in costs due to legal issues, lower ability to obtain financing, and difficulty paying rent. The financial impact is troubling when considering that nearly 10 percent of males globally have admitted to spending more on their alcohol needs than is supplied by their income (WHO, 2004). The disruption in priorities due to alcoholism can impact the entire family and society as a whole.
Alcohol and the Brain
The effects of a night of heavy drinking can leave the imbiber with a headache, feeling dizzy, and possibly with gaps in his or her memory of the activities of the previous night. Heavy use of alcohol can lead to a slowdown in the messages transmitted by the neurotransmitters of the brain, which when alcohol abuse occurs over a long duration, can lead to changes in the brain structure. Some of the brain’s most vulnerable parts that are susceptible to damage caused by alcohol abuse include the cerebellum, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex (NIH, 2010). Damage to the cerebellum can lead to difficulties maintaining balance, lapses in memory, and emotional responses; memory and emotion are also influenced by damage to the limbic system; the ability to behave in a socially acceptable manner, the capacity to think and plan, and even learn are all affected by damage to the cerebral cortex (NIH, 2010). With prolonged use,
“Long-term, heavy drinking causes alterations in the neurons, such as reductions in the size of brain cells. As a result of these and other changes, brain mass shrinks and the brain’s inner cavity grows bigger. These changes may affect a wide range of abilities, including motor coordination, temperature regulation, sleep, mood, and various cognitive functions, including learning and memory” (NIH, 2010, p. 6).
The frontal lobe is also one of the areas of the brain that can become damaged from heavy and prolonged alcohol use. Research using computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging has revealed that there is decreased frontal lobe activity among alcoholics (Moselhy, Georgiou, & Kahn, 2001). However, not all damage occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to alcohol, as damage to the brain can happen as a result of binge drinking among adolescents (Petit, Maurage, Kornreich, Verbanck, & Campanella, 2014).
Mood and behavioral issues also are attributed to alcohol abuse, as alcohol is known to disrupt the neurotransmitter balance. In an attempt to correct the balance of neurotransmitters, the brain tries to compensate, often with disastrous results. Overcompensation by the brain can lead to the alcoholic developing alcohol dependence, increasing the tolerance which leads to the individual requiring more alcohol in order to achieve the same effect, and when the alcoholic doesn’t drink, he or she can experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms (NIH, 2010). Mental health concerns such as depression, agitation, and dementia are known to occur as a result of heavy drinking, which not only affect the alcoholic, but also those who are tasked with taking care of the alcoholic: family, friends, co-workers, mental health professionals, doctors, emergency care workers, etc.
Excessive consumption of alcohol, either during one occasion (binge drinking) or over a prolonged period of time can be detrimental to the life of an individual. Alcoholism is associated with a variety of negative effects that degrade the well-being of the individual, as well as those around them and society as a whole. While it is often glamorized on television, movies, and advertisements, the reality is not as glitzy; alcoholism has the capability to destroy every aspect of life, and therefore excessive use of alcohol should not be encouraged. Alcohol intake is responsible for a substantial number of diseases that affect the morbidity and mortality of society, with several studies documenting the wide range of alcohol-related health problems. Abstinence from alcohol is the only way to prevent the negative effects from occurring, and as such, should be promoted as an alternative to the excessive consumption of alcohol.
Breslow, R. A., Chen, C. M., Graubard, B. I., & Mukamal, K. J. (2011). Prospective study of alcohol consumption quantity and frequency and cancer-specific mortality in the US population. American Journal of Epidemiology, 174(9), 1044-1053. doi:10.1093/aje/kwr210
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Alcohol use and health. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
Moselhy, H. F., Georgiou, G., & Kahn, A. (2001). Frontal lobe changes in alcoholism: A review of the literature. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 36(5), 357-368. doi:10.1093/alcalc/36.5.357
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (U.S.) (2010). Beyond hangovers: Understanding alcohol's impact your health (13-7604). Bethesda, MD: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Petit, G., Maurage, P., Kornreich, C., Verbanck, P., & Campanella, S. (2014). Binge drinking in adolescents: A review of neurophysiological and neuroimaging research. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 49(2), 198-206. doi:10.1093/alcalc/agt172
World Health Organization. Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse (2004).Global status report on alcohol 2004. Geneva: World Health Organization, Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.