Here's Not To Your Health

Drinking takes a heavy toll on the minds and bodies of those who overindulge

FRIDAY, May 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- For thousands of years, we've used alcohol to celebrate, to relax, and to forget our cares.

And for thousands of years, some of us have overdone it.

Today, as many as one-in-10 Americans has a drinking problem -- more than 25 million people. It's estimated that alcoholism affects one out of every four American homes.

But alcohol's biggest impact takes place one drinker at a time. Taken to excess, the drug -- and it is a powerful drug, make no mistake -- is responsible for an array of illnesses throughout the body.

High blood pressure. Heart disease. Cancer of the larynx, liver and esophagus. Diabetes. Convulsive disorders. Liver disease. Ulcers.

These are just some of the medical effects of alcoholism.

"Alcohol affects every organ in the body," says Dr. Nicholas Pace, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at New York University and board member of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).

"It interferes with the drinker's personal relations; it can interfere with his job -- but most of all, it interferes with his health," he adds.

Hoping to increase knowledge of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems, the NCADD has declared April as Alcohol Awareness Month.

American society has waged a decades-long battle against smoking and now appears to be gearing up for a fight against obesity.

But the health effects of alcoholism haven't received as much attention. That may be due to alcohol's unusual position as a legal drug that is safely enjoyed by many, yet causes serious problems for a significant minority.

"People are exposed to alcohol since they're knee-high," says Pace. "We have a society that promotes the heavy use of alcohol, but when people have a problem with drinking, society turns its back.

"Alcoholism is a disease that is so common, everybody knows somebody with it -- yet it has this tremendous stigma," he adds.

Alcohol isn't without its health benefits. Studies have shown that moderate use of red wine can promote healthy hearts. And there's some evidence that people who have one or two drinks a day may be less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.

But for those who aren't able to use alcohol in moderation, the list of diseases linked to booze is longer and deadlier.

Alcohol affects the brain as well as the body. Heavy drinkers can lose brain cells -- and actually, over time, lose some of their reasoning abilities. Alcohol abuse also can take on the characteristics of mental illness.

"If they drink in an addictive manner, some people will develop all the signs of a major depression," says Dr. Robert Morse, a psychiatrist who heads the NCADD medical science committee and is a former director of addiction programs at the Mayo Clinic.

"They don't sleep, don't eat. They become hopeless, think about suicide, cry constantly. But with abstinence alone -- three to four weeks -- usually that depression clears up.

"Alcoholism can mimic other psychiatric disorders, as well," Morse says. "As you come on and off alcohol, you can become panicky or phobic."

Morse says that women often are more affected by alcohol than men -- particularly when it comes to liver disease -- because of their body chemistry.

Women have more fat in their tissues than men, meaning there is less water in the body's cells to dilute the alcohol. Women also have less of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach.

And because of cultural changes that have made it more acceptable for women to drink, they are closing the alcoholism gap with men.

"Over the last century, the rate of alcoholism has been 4-to-1 or 5-to-1, male to female," Morse says. "But in the baby boomer generation, it's now closer to 2-to-1. Women are gaining in this area, unfortunately."

As more women become problem drinkers, their newborn children are affected, too. Fetal alcohol syndrome is now the third-leading cause of birth defects in the United States.

And alcoholism's effects ripple throughout our society, says Pace, who cites a sobering array of statistics:

  • 50 percent of family court cases involve the use of alcohol;
  • 38 percent of child-abuse cases involve alcohol;
  • 80 percent of fire deaths and 40 percent of industrial accidents are linked to drinking;
  • 60 percent of murders involve alcohol;
  • 50 percent of suicides and 50 percent of fatal auto accidents involve drinking;
  • Between 20 percent and 40 percent of homeless Americans have a drinking problem.

"They say the alcoholic adversely affects four people in his immediate environment and 16 people in his outer environment," says Pace.

Given that, he adds: "If you were going to do something in our society to change the world, this is the area to do it in."

What to Do: Do you have a drinking problem? Take this Alcoholics Anonymous quiz for an answer, or see these "frequently asked questions about alcohol abuse" from the National Institutes of Health.

SOURCES: Nicholas Pace, M.D., assistant professor of clinical medicine, New York University, New York City, and board member, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; Robert Morse, M.D., chairman of NCADD's medical science committee, and former director of addiction programs, Mayo Clinic
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