How Many Years Does Drinking Take Off Your Life?
Drinking alcohol is a social activity that, if done in moderation, is benign at best. When people take their drinking habits too far, it can reduce their life expectancy. So how much is too much?
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Alcohol Consumption and Life Expectancy
According to a 2016 Lancet study of 600,000 drinkers, those who consume 10-15 drinks per week have their lifespans reduced by an average of 1-2 years. The study warns that those who exceed 18 weekly drinks could lose 4-5 years of their lives. Subjects in the study had no prior heart issues.
The authors of the study didn’t find a correlation between light drinking (seven weekly drinks or less) and reduced lifespan. Researchers adjusted the study for age, gender, smoking status and health issues like diabetes. They found no evidence to support the notion that light consumption of red wine can improve heart health.
What Is Moderate Drinking?
In the US, the average drink includes 0.6 oz (1.2 tbsp) of pure alcohol. This amount is usually found in the most commonly consumed alcoholic drinks, including
- Beer (12 oz = 5% alcohol)
- Wine (5 oz = 12% alcohol)
- Malt liquor (8 oz = 7% alcohol)
- Distilled spirits (1.5 oz = 40% alcohol)
In general, no man should consume more than seven drinks per week. Alternately, no man should consume more than two drinks per evening if he drinks an average of three occasions per week.
For women, the limit is half that much due to the makeup of the female body. Due to the extra fat tissue and lower water mass in females, alcohol takes more time to clear the female body. Women who match their alcohol consumption to men risk greater intoxication and health consequences.
What Is Excessive Drinking?
Excessive drinking is the habit of over-drinking on a single occasion (binge drinking) or consuming too many alcoholic beverages per week. The habit does not constitute alcoholism, per se, but it can lead to alcohol use disorder if the individual is unable to curtail his/her habit.
Binge drinking is defined as follows:
- Men – More than five drinks in a single evening (some researchers confine this timeframe to two hours).
- Women – More than four drinks in a single evening.
Heavy drinking is defined as follows:
- Men – More than 15 drinks per week.
- Women – More than eight drinks per week.
The criteria for excessive drinking is more strict for certain demographics. Pregnant women and nursing mothers should not drink at all because the alcohol content can pass onto the child and cause dependency and/or defects.
Young people under the legal drinking age should not consume alcohol because its effects can stunt brain development. Therefore, excessive drinking is considered one drink for anyone under 21 (US) or 18 (abroad). Debates rage as to whether the US should lower its age to that of other nations.
People Should Not Drink if…
In certain circumstances, adult men and women should not consume alcohol. In some cases, it’s due to health conditions that could be fatal if mixed with alcohol. In certain situations, even small amounts of alcohol can cloud judgment and cause dangerous situations. Examples of times, places and circumstances where alcohol doesn’t mix include:
- Driving – Anyone who operates a motor vehicle or who serves as the designated driver at an event should not consume alcohol within six hours of the time in question.
- Shooting – Anyone about to use firearms for any legal purpose (hunting, target practice) should not consume alcohol within six hours of the activity.
- Morbidity – People with pre-existing health conditions (cardiovascular problems, respiratory issues, liver damage) should not consume alcohol.
- Medication – Alcohol should not be mixed with prescription and over-the-counter medications. As a depressant, alcohol can exacerbate the effects of medicines formulated to slow a user’s heart rate.
In cases of morbidity, alcohol intake can reduce a person’s life expectancy. People who drink alcohol before operating firearms, rolling stock or automobiles could jeopardize their lives or those around them due to the intoxicating effects of alcohol, which reduce coordination and mental clarity.
Short-Term Risks of Drinking Alcohol
Excessive drinking has immediate risks, even before alcohol use disorder takes hold. The dangers posed by activities like binge drinking include:
- Injury – When intoxicated, a person might drive a car off a road and crash into a tree. Such incidents can lead to totaled vehicles, costly fines, bone fractures, DUI/loss of license and worse.
- Death – Drunk driving can also lead to fatal roadside accidents. During the first half of 2021, there were 20,160 deaths caused in the US by driving while under the influence.
- Violence – People are often more blunt, belligerent, quarrelsome, easily agitated and eager to fight and throw punches while intoxicated. This can result in black eyes, injuries and jail time.
- Indiscriminate behavior – Peoples’ inhibitions and reasoning are lowered while intoxicated. This can cause people to engage in unprotected sex, resulting in STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Some women place themselves in compromised situations when drunk.
- Alcohol poisoning – Excessive drinking can lead to an alcohol overdose. Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died of asphyxiation after downing four quadruple vodkas.
- Overdose – Alcohol can interact dangerously with drugs. A person who binge drinks while taking stimulants (cocaine, speed) could suffer lethal arrhythmia. Mixing alcohol and depressant drugs (heroin, fentanyl) can slow the heart to a stop.
- Miscarriage – Pregnant women who drink risk miscarriage or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
All of these drinking habits can reduce a person’s life expectancy and, in some cases, end life right there.
Long-Term Risks of Drinking Alcohol
Poor health and drinking habits feed into one another. When alcohol abuse gives way to alcohol use disorder, people have a higher risk of the following.
- Cardiovascular disease – Alcohol abuse can lead to hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases.
- Liver disease – The liver’s role is to strip toxins from things that go into the body, including alcohol. When overwhelmed with too much alcohol, it can’t function properly.
- Cancer – Alcohol abuse can cause cancer of the breasts, throat, colon, and mouth.
- Weakened immunity – The liver is the frontline of the immune system. A ruined liver can render a person vulnerable to numerous diseases due to compromised immunity.
- Cognitive impairment – Excessive drinking causes slower breathing, which robs the brain of oxygen. This can cause memory loss, dementia and brain damage. The risks are worse for young people (with developing minds) and older adults.
Alcohol abuse can also cause mental health problems like paranoia, anxiety, despair and suicidal thoughts.
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Treatment for Excessive Drinking Habits
Drinking has no health benefits. It does pose numerous negative health effects, including lower life expectancy. If you have a loved one who can’t stop drinking, get that person the help he/she needs today. Contact the nearest alcohol treatment centers and ask about their rehab programs. Your call could increase someone’s life expectancy.