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What are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol is the most commonly abused mood and mind-altering substance in the United States. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 85.6% of adults report drinking alcohol at some point in their lives, and up to 14.5 million people in the U.S. over the age of 12 struggle with an alcohol use disorder. Even more concerning is that an estimated 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, making alcohol the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States.[1]

Despite the far-reaching effects of alcohol abuse, the substance remains legal. As a result, some people are under the impression that alcohol is safer than other drugs. The truth is, alcohol is extremely dangerous when abused, especially over an extended period of time. Long-term alcohol abuse can damage the brain, most internal organs, and even increase the risk of certain cancers.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol intoxication impairs a person’s coordination, judgment, and decision-making in the short term, but alcohol abuse has long-term effects on the brain as well. Alcohol affects areas of the brain involved with communication, emotions, and perception. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to serious and even irreversible damage to the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and limbic system.

A few ways alcohol affects the brain in the long-term include:

  • Poor balance
  • Nerve damage
  • Insomnia
  • Reduced attention span
  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty forming coherent thoughts
  • Increased risk of anxiety and depression
  • Memory loss
  • Dementia
  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy
  • Korsakoff’s psychosis or “wet brain”

Fortunately, most alcoholics that suffer from cognitive impairment show improvement in brain structure and functioning within one year of sustained abstinence.[2]

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body

Alcohol abuse affects not only the brain but also every other major organ in the body. When people drink alcohol, the ethanol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine. Once in the blood, ethanol circulates throughout the body. Chronic alcohol use can affect the way major organs function and carry out vital processes.

Areas of the body that are commonly affected by alcohol abuse include:


Alcohol is primarily metabolized in the liver, so the liver is one area of the body that can be seriously affected by long-term alcohol abuse. The liver is responsible for aiding in food digestion and filtering waste out of the body. When the liver is consumed with metabolizing alcohol, its other responsibilities fall to the wayside. Too much alcohol can cause inflammation of the liver, leading to liver disease. Continuing to drink alcohol after developing liver disease can cause other parts of the body to begin deteriorating, as well.

Liver-related health problems associated with alcohol include:

  • Fatty liver (alcoholic steatohepatitis)
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis
  • Scarred or shrunken liver
  • Hepatic encephalopathy

People who develop an alcohol-related liver disease are at a higher risk of developing liver cancer.

It is estimated that 10-15% of alcoholics develop cirrhosis and about 20% of alcoholics develop fatty liver disease. People who develop cirrhosis only have a 35% chance of survival if they do not stop drinking.[3]


The kidneys filter harmful substances out of the blood, but alcohol abuse can impact their ability to do so effectively. Long-term alcohol abuse causes the kidneys to become overworked. It also leads to high blood pressure which can result in or worsen kidney disease.

Another way alcohol can affect the kidneys is by causing a breakdown of muscle tissue into the bloodstream–a condition called rhabdomyolysis. This condition allows large muscle proteins to spill into the bloodstream, causing kidney damage or failure. Lastly, liver health is linked to kidney health, so liver disease can lead to kidney failure.[4]


Chronic drinking may contribute to or worsen existing heart problems. The heart receives blood from the liver and pumps it throughout the body. If the liver can’t keep up with the amount of alcohol consumed or isn’t working properly, alcohol-contaminated blood enters the heart and can cause a number of long-term health effects, including:[5]

  • Heart disease
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Arrhythmias
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure

Studies estimate that heavy drinkers are twice as likely to develop heart disease compared to moderate drinkers or abstinent individuals.[6]

Stomach and GI System

Even when used in moderation, alcohol negatively affects the digestive system. This is because alcohol causes increased production of stomach acid which can lead to gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), heartburn, and acid reflux. Other digestive problems caused by alcohol include:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Gas
  • Cramping
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Internal bleeding
  • Ulcers
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cancer


The pancreas produces two hormones that are necessary for the digestion of food. These hormones decrease the level of sugar in the blood. Alcohol, however, affects the production of these chemicals and can cause the pancreas to create harmful chemicals, instead.

Long-term alcohol abuse can cause blood vessels surrounding the pancreas to get swollen. This leads to pancreatitis–a potentially deadly inflammation of the pancreas.

Long-Term Alcohol Abuse Increases the Risk of Cancer

Chronic alcohol abuse is linked to an increased risk of many different types of cancer, including:[7]

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Stomach cancer

Find Help for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Today

People who seek treatment for alcoholism and successfully put an end to their drinking may be able to reverse or slow down some of the adverse health problems caused by long-term alcohol abuse.

The first step in treating alcohol addiction is medical detox. Alcohol withdrawal can produce life-threatening symptoms, but detox centers can provide supervision, medications, and supportive care to keep patients safe and comfortable.

After detox, patients move onto rehabilitation where they participate in a variety of therapies and healing methods to help them learn how to prevent relapse in the future. At Mandala Healing Center, we offer a holistic, whole-person approach to detox and treatment. Patients receive individualized care and state-of-the-art treatment services.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism and ready to begin a new way of life, contact us today.