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12 health risks of chronic heavy drinking

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

It's no secret that alcohol consumption can cause major health problems, including cirrhosis of the liver, as well as injuries sustained in road traffic accidents. But if you think liver disease and car crashes are the only health risks posed by drinking, think again. Researchers have linked alcohol consumption with more than 60 diseases.

Here are 12 conditions linked to chronic heavy drinking.


Heavy drinking can cause the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells to be abnormally low. This condition, known as anaemia, can trigger a host of symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness.


Habitual drinking is known to increase the risk of cancer. Scientists believe the increased risk comes when the body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a potent carcinogen. Cancer sites linked to alcohol use include the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), oesophagus, liver, breast, colon and rectum. The cancer risk is even higher in heavy drinkers who also use tobacco.

Cardiovascular disease

Heavy drinking, especially binge drinking, makes platelets more likely to clump together into blood clots, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. In 2005, Harvard researchers in the US found that binge drinking doubled the risk of death among people who initially survived a heart attack.

Heavy drinking can also cause cardiomyopathy - a potentially fatal condition in which the heart muscle weakens and eventually fails - as well as the heart rhythm abnormality atrial fibrillation, in which the heart's upper chambers (atria) twitch chaotically rather than contract rhythmically. This can result in blood clots that may trigger a stroke.

The latest UK guidelines say men and women shouldn't drink more than 14 units a week spread over 3 days or more, with some alcohol-free days. A standard glass of wine is 2.1 units and a pint of beer is around 2 units.


Alcohol is toxic to liver cells, and many heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis - a sometimes fatal condition in which the liver is so heavily scarred that it is unable to function. But it's hard to predict which drinkers will develop cirrhosis. Some people who drink excessively don’t get cirrhosis, and some who don't drink very much do. For reasons as yet unknown women seem to be especially vulnerable.


As people age, their brains shrink, on average at a rate of about 1.9% per decade. That's considered normal. But heavy drinking speeds the shrinkage of certain key regions in the brain, resulting in memory loss and other symptoms of dementia.

Heavy drinking can also lead to subtle but potentially debilitating deficits in the ability to plan, make judgements, solve problems, and other aspects of "executive function," which are the “higher-order“ abilities that distinguish humans from other species.

In addition to the "non-specific" dementia that stems from brain atrophy, heavy drinking can cause nutritional deficiencies so severe that they trigger other forms of dementia.

The authors of a study reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry say alcohol-related dementia is under-recognised and may account for up to 10% of all dementia cases - around 85,000 people in the UK.

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