It is well-established that long-term alcohol abuse can cause serious health problems, including brain damage and various forms of cancer. It also destroys relationships, finances, careers and emotional well-being. A series of recent studies show that alcohol abuse does even more damage than was previously known. Technological advances in neuroimaging allow scientists to observe alcohol’s effect on the brain and body with greater accuracy. New research published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research shows that chronic alcohol abuse leads to thinning of the cerebral cortex, the region of the brain that supports high-level thinking. Alcohol affects all areas of the brain, but most significantly the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for learning new information and regulating impulses. This means that heavy drinking damages the parts of the brain that would help them overcome alcoholism. It’s like drowning in the ocean and tearing up your life jacket. “We now know that alcohol has wide ranging effects across the entire cortex and in structures of the brain that contribute to a wide range of psychological abilities and intellectual functions,” said study author Catherine Brawn Fortier, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School. The researchers also found that brain damage induced by chronic drinking occurs along a spectrum, getting more severe the more alcohol is consumed. Rather than being an all-or-nothing proposition, heavy drinkers can stop the damage by getting alcohol treatment early on. A growing body of research shows that the physical damage to the various organ systems in the body can take years to improve, and may be permanent. In some cases, cognitive abilities, personality and behavior may remain compromised after getting sober. As a result, chronic, heavy drinkers – even those who have stopped drinking – may suffer from:
- Impulsive, risky behavior
- Difficulty planning and reasoning through problems
- Poor attention span
- Mood swings
- Poor memory
- Impaired verbal skills
Another recent study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research shows that alcohol damages DNA and triggers chromosomal abnormalities, increasing the risk for breast and liver cancers. Ethanol is now a known carcinogen in several areas of the body. The effects of alcohol abuse are severe and widespread. To some extent, the brain and body can recover by getting alcohol treatment early on and staying sober. If you’re struggling with alcohol abuse, get help before you lose everything that’s important to you, including your ability to think and function clearly.