Alcohol consumption has a significant impact on life expectancy. Namely, across all-cause mortality, alcohol drinking is associated with a reduction of 5 years in life expectancy. Specifically, compared to people who do not drink, people who drink heavily (ten drinks per week or more) are 2 times more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases1, 5 times more likely to die from cancer2, 10 times more likely to die from influenza and pneumonia3, 13 times more likely to die from MVA4, 20 times likely to die from suicide5 and 20 times likely to die from liver diseases6. What is even more sobering is the fact that for people with alcoholic liver disease, the average life expectancy is 55 years, which is 21 years younger than the average life expectancy for the general population of 76 years.
There is No Safe Level of Drinking
The scientific community now agrees that no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health. It was once believed that moderate alcohol consumption, which is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men, may have some health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease. However, this has now been refuted. The reason why some studies associated alcohol with health benefits is that they fail to recognize the bias in their populations. That is, there is an association between moderate alcohol consumption and good health but unfortunately, moderate alcohol consumption does not cause good health. The reason why there is a correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and good health is that people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol tend to share other aspects of a moderate lifestyles. Namely, people who consume alcohol moderately are likely to also have a well-balance diet, exercise regularly, have a supporting social circles, etc. Yes, there are sometimes antioxidants in wine but saying you drink wine for the health benefit of the antioxidants is like saying you eat burgers for the heath benefits of pickles. The following sections explain how alcohol damages the human body.
Alcohol increase the production of harmful molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are highly reactive molecules that damage cellular components like DNA. Specifically, when ROS interact with DNA, they cause DNA damages. As DNA controls cell division and growth, DNA damages generally lead to cancer.
Alcohol causes inflammation and taken repeatedly, it causes chronic inflammation, which leads to tissue damage and the accumulation of scar tissues and fat that eventually compromise the ability of tissues to properly function. Specifically, the cardiovascular system is heavily affected by chronic inflammation as scar tissues and fat deposits compromise blood circulation between organs. The liver is also heavily affected as the scarring that results from metabolizing alcohol eventually compromises the liver’s function. Furthermore, the breakdown of alcohol into acetaldehyde by the liver is toxic to all tissues.
Alterations of Cell Signalling
Alcohol affects the function of ion channels and receptors and thereby disrupt the normal flow of electrical signals between neurons that are instrumental to cognition, memory and motor function. Alcohol namely increases the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. When alcohol is taken regularly, the pleasure associated with it leads to the development of alcohol addiction, as the brain associate the pleasurable effects of alcohol with reward and craves more alcohol. Individuals who regularly drink also build up tolerance for dopamine and will always need more to achieve the pleasurable affect.
Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell. They are responsible for producing the energy needed for cell function. Alcohol disrupts mitochondria by interfering with the electron transport chain which is the process by which mitochondria generate energy. As a result, less energy can be produced in the presence of alcohol and cell functions are affected accordingly. In the long run, alcohol causes an energy shortage that obliges the body to work on limited resources and eventually forces organs into exhaustion.
Alcohol affects various regions of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, self-control and impulse regulation. Alcohol specifically impart inhibitory control which leads to impulsive and risky behaviours. Alcohol consumption also affects cognitive processes like judgment and decision-making. Alcohol specifically leads to a reduction in risk assessment abilities, impair logical reasoning, and decrease the ability to consider long-term consequences. Moreover, alcohol also impairs coordination and balance. As such, alcohol creates a perfect storm that significantly increases risks of accidents like falls and MVA.
Predicting life expectancy is complex and needs to take many factors into consideration. Youlldie allows to visualize how alcohol consumption interacts with other factors like gender, race, world region, income, education, tobacco, physical activity, sleep, blood pressure, body mass index and family history to statistically predict life expectancy.
- Piano MR. Alcohol’s Effects on the Cardiovascular System. Alcohol Res. 2017;38(2):219-241. PMID: 28988575; PMCID: PMC5513687. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513687/
- Pelucchi C, Tramacere I, Boffetta P, Negri E, La Vecchia C. Alcohol consumption and cancer risk. Nutr Cancer. 2011;63(7):983-90. doi: 10.1080/01635581.2011.596642. Epub 2011 Aug 24. PMID: 21864055. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21864055/.
- Simet SM, Sisson JH. Alcohol’s Effects on Lung Health and Immunity. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):199-208. PMID: 26695745; PMCID: PMC4590617. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590617/
- Taylor B, Rehm J. The relationship between alcohol consumption and fatal motor vehicle injury: high risk at low alcohol levels. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2012 Oct;36(10):1827-34. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2012.01785.x. Epub 2012 May 7. PMID: 22563862; PMCID: PMC3433627. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3433627/
- Pompili M, Serafini G, Innamorati M, Dominici G, Ferracuti S, Kotzalidis GD, Serra G, Girardi P, Janiri L, Tatarelli R, Sher L, Lester D. Suicidal behavior and alcohol abuse. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010 Apr;7(4):1392-431. doi: 10.3390/ijerph7041392. Epub 2010 Mar 29. PMID: 20617037; PMCID: PMC2872355. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2872355/.
- Roerecke M, Vafaei A, Hasan OSM, Chrystoja BR, Cruz M, Lee R, Neuman MG, Rehm J. Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Liver Cirrhosis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2019 Oct;114(10):1574-1586. doi: 10.14309/ajg.0000000000000340. PMID: 31464740; PMCID: PMC6776700. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6776700/.