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LIFELONG HEALTH: Violence, illness due to alcohol account for one in 10 deaths

As a young adult I lived with someone who drank to excess. Worst of all, she was an angry drunk and often physically abusive. Despite being an enabler, I finally broke free and have had a wonderful life since. But I have been scarred forever by alcohol.

Alcohol is the major cause of spousal and family abuse, irrespective of sex. It is a major factor in crimes such as murder and rape, and in, of course, motor vehicle accidents. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in 2012, 10,322 people died in drunk driving crashes, or one every 51 minutes. And every 90 seconds, someone is injured in a drunk driving crash.

DR. DAVID LIPSCHITZAlcohol is a factor in 37 percent of rapes and sexual assaults and 40 percent of all violent crimes. More than 5 million adults currently in prison were drinking at the time they committed the crime leading to incarceration. Deaths by suicide and accidents more frequently involve alcohol than anything else.

Far more than illegal drugs like marijuana, alcohol has an impact on the health and wellbeing of men, women, children, families and loved ones. Though it is well-understood that deaths from alcohol are related to crime and accidents, recent studies reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that one in 10 deaths are alcohol-related and that 90 percent of these deaths are because of the damage alcohol inflicts on virtually every organ system in the body.

A study published in the Journal Preventing Chronic Disease reported that excessive alcohol use, which included binge drinking, heavy weekly drinking, underage drinking or drinking during pregnancy, led to more than 88, 000 deaths between 2006 and 2010. Over 70 percent were adults aged 20 to 64. Alcohol had reduced their life expectancy by an average of 30 years.

Here are some of the ways in which alcohol leads to serious illness:

n Excessive alcohol intake causes significant damage to liver cells. In the short term, this can lead the liver to become enlarged due to it accumulating a great deal of fat. At this stage, stopping alcohol abuse can lead to complete resolution of the problem. Continued use over time leads to more and more damage to liver cells and scar tissue forming in the liver, which ultimately results in cirrhosis. Eventually, the liver fails, and jaundice and mental changes occur, finally resulting in death.

Alcohol damage to the liver can impair blood flow from the bowel to the heart, causing a condition called portal hypertension. Here, veins lining the stomach and other parts of the bowel enlarge and occasionally rupture, leading to life-threatening bleeds from the stomach and intestine.

n Alcohol can cause acute pancreatitis, which presents with severe abdominal and back pain, and nausea and vomiting, frequently resulting in extended hospital stays. As the disease becomes chronic, diabetes develops and the production of enzymes required to digest food is impaired. This leads to malabsorption, weight loss, osteoporosis and severe physical disability.

n The effects of alcohol on the heart are particularly dangerous. A condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy develops, which leads to severe irregularities of the heart rate and rhythm. Over time, the heart fails, manifesting with shortness of breath, an inability to sleep flat in bed and marked swelling of the legs. This condition is usually irreversible and frequently fatal.

n The chronic effects of alcohol on the brain and nervous system result in Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This condition presents with confusion, paralysis of the nerves causing eye movement and loss of coordination. Chronically, it results in irreversible memory loss, and problems with gait and balance. Alcohol-induced damage to the peripheral nerves results in profound weakness and severe, debilitating numbness and pain in the arms and legs.

Not everyone with alcohol-related medical problems can be defined as alcoholics. While one or two beers, glasses of wine or cocktails per night may promote health and prevent disease, more can be dangerous. It’s those social drinkers who never get drunk and can “hold their liquor” while consuming five, six or more drinks nightly are prone to developing an alcohol-related illness. For reasons that are not understood, some people are much more likely to develop liver disease, while others may develop cardiac or brain problems.

The message is clear: Alcohol destroys lives and leads to disease. And even a little more than “in moderation” can cause serious harm.

Dr. David Lipschitz is the author of the book “Breaking the Rules of Aging.” To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com. More information is available at: DrDavidHealth.com.

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