Taking a Closer Look at Alcoholism: How Long Do Alcoholics Live?

Alcoholism, also called alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic and potentially life-threatening condition characterized by an inability to control alcohol consumption despite its adverse consequences. This disorder not only affects physical health but also wreaks havoc on mental well-being and social functioning. A research study found that individuals who consume 10-15 alcoholic beverages a week had their lifespan reduced by 1-2 years, and those who consume more than 18 drinks weekly saw reductions of 4-5 years.

Struggling with alcoholism? You're not alone.

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is more than just excessive drinking; it embodies a complex relationship of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Individuals with AUD exhibit compulsive alcohol-seeking behavior, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms upon stopping alcohol consumption, and continued use despite negative consequences. The spectrum of alcoholism ranges from mild to severe, with varying degrees of impairment in daily functioning and health.

Being Diagnosed as an Alcoholic

Diagnosing alcoholism requires a comprehensive assessment by healthcare professionals trained in addiction medicine or psychiatry. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines specific criteria for AUD diagnosis, including impaired control over drinking, increased alcohol tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and continued alcohol use despite adverse effects on health or social functioning.

Healthcare providers may utilize standardized screening tools, such as the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), to evaluate alcohol consumption patterns and identify individuals at risk for AUD. Open and honest communication between patients and clinicians is crucial in reaching an accurate diagnosis and formulating a tailored treatment plan.

Consequences of Alcoholism

From acute conditions to chronic diseases, the consequences of alcoholism can be severe and potentially life-threatening. Understanding the health problems linked to alcoholism is crucial for raising awareness, promoting prevention, and facilitating early intervention. Here are some of the key health issues associated with alcoholism:

  • Liver Disease
    • Alcoholic Liver Disease (ALD): Chronic alcohol consumption is a leading cause of liver damage, ranging from fatty liver disease and alcoholic hepatitis to cirrhosis. ALD progresses through stages, beginning with liver inflammation and fatty deposits, advancing to hepatitis (inflammation), and culminating in cirrhosis (irreversible scarring). Cirrhosis significantly increases the risk of liver failure and liver cancer.
  • Cardiovascular Complications
    • Hypertension (High Blood Pressure): Excessive alcohol intake can elevate blood pressure, increasing the risk of hypertension. Prolonged hypertension contributes to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other adverse cardiovascular events.
    • Cardiomyopathy: Chronic alcohol abuse can weaken the heart muscle, leading to cardiomyopathy, a condition characterized by reduced heart function and enlargement of the heart chambers. Cardiomyopathy predisposes individuals to heart failure and arrhythmias.
    • Arrhythmias: Alcoholism disrupts the electrical signals that regulate heart rhythm, predisposing individuals to atrial fibrillation, ventricular tachycardia, and other cardiac arrhythmias. These abnormalities increase the risk of stroke and sudden cardiac death.
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders
    • Gastritis: Alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach, leading to inflammation (gastritis) and gastrointestinal bleeding. Chronic gastritis can progress to peptic ulcers and increase the risk of upper gastrointestinal bleeding.
    • Pancreatitis: Alcoholism is a significant risk factor for pancreatitis, an inflammatory condition characterized by severe abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Chronic pancreatitis can impair pancreatic function and lead to malabsorption, diabetes mellitus, and pancreatic cancer.
  • Neurological Complications
    • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, resulting in Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Symptoms include confusion, memory loss, ataxia (loss of coordination), and cognitive impairment.
    • Peripheral Neuropathy: Alcoholism can damage peripheral nerves, causing peripheral neuropathy characterized by numbness, tingling, weakness, and pain in the extremities. Peripheral neuropathy may impair mobility and diminish quality of life.
  • Mental Health Disorders
    • Depression and Anxiety: Alcoholism is closely linked to mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. Chronic alcohol abuse disrupts neurotransmitter balance, exacerbating psychiatric symptoms and increasing the risk of suicidal ideation and self-harm.
    • Dual Diagnosis: Alcoholism often coexists with other mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and personality disorders. The interplay between alcoholism and psychiatric comorbidities complicates diagnosis and treatment, necessitating integrated care.
  • Cancer
    • Esophageal Cancer: Chronic alcohol use increases the risk of squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.
    • Liver Cancer: Alcoholism predisposes individuals to hepatocellular carcinoma (primary liver cancer) in the setting of cirrhosis and chronic liver disease.
    • Breast Cancer: Prolonged alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, particularly in women.
  • Immune Dysfunction
    • Alcoholism impairs immune function, rendering individuals more susceptible to infections, including respiratory infections, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Chronic alcohol abuse suppresses the immune response, impeding the body’s ability to fight off pathogens effectively.
  • Nutritional Deficiencies
    • Alcoholism disrupts nutrient absorption and metabolism, leading to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. Common nutritional deficiencies associated with alcoholism include deficiencies in thiamine (vitamin B1), folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and zinc. Malnutrition exacerbates the risk of complications and compromises overall health.
There are many options for treatment for alcoholism, including 1 on 1 therapy.

Treatment Approaches for Alcoholism

Treatment for alcoholism encompasses a continuum of care, ranging from outpatient counseling to intensive inpatient rehabilitation programs. The goals of treatment include achieving and maintaining sobriety, addressing underlying psychological issues, and promoting overall well-being. 

Several evidence-based interventions have proven effective in managing alcoholism:

  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and contingency management are among the psychotherapeutic approaches employed in treating alcoholism. These modalities help individuals identify and modify maladaptive thoughts and behaviors associated with alcohol use, develop coping skills, and bolster motivation for change.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): FDA-approved medications, such as naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram, may be prescribed to reduce alcohol cravings, alleviate withdrawal symptoms, or deter relapse. MAT is often integrated with psychosocial interventions to optimize treatment outcomes and support long-term recovery.
  • Support Groups: Peer support networks, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery, provide invaluable encouragement, camaraderie, and accountability for individuals navigating the challenges of alcoholism. These groups offer a safe space for sharing experiences, fostering mutual understanding, and reinforcing sobriety goals.
  • Holistic Approaches: Complementary therapies, including mindfulness meditation, yoga, and acupuncture, complement traditional treatment modalities by promoting stress reduction, emotional regulation, and overall wellness. Integrating holistic approaches into alcoholism treatment enhances its holistic nature and addresses the diverse needs of individuals in recovery.

Manage Alcoholism at Great Falls Wellness

Answering the question of how long alcoholics live underscores the impact that alcoholism has on health, longevity, and overall well-being. From diagnosis to treatment, addressing alcoholism to lead a healthier life requires multiple approaches, and Great Falls Wellness can help. If you or a loved one wants to break the chains of alcoholism and work on leading a sober life, give us a call today to learn more about our treatment options.

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