Alcoholics Plagued by Long List of Physical Ailments

New findings from a team of German and British researchers indicate that people with alcoholism have heightened chances of dying from numerous physical ailments and lose about 7.6 years of life to the disease.

Alcoholism (alcohol dependence) is known for its ability to increase affected individuals’ likelihood of dying from certain causes; however, the actual range of conditions linked to alcoholism-related mortality may be substantially wider than generally believed. In a study published in April 2015 in the journal European Psychiatry, researchers from one German institution and one British institution used a large-scale, long-term project to help determine precisely why people addicted to alcohol die. These researchers concluded that more than two dozen physical health problems can play a role in alcoholism-related premature death.


Alcohol dependence occurs when a person habitually consumes enough alcohol to produce lasting, dysfunctional change in a part of the brain commonly called the pleasure center. This dysfunctional change ultimately causes the brain to rely on continued, excessive drinking in order to maintain its accustomed working conditions. Specific indications of a dependence on alcohol include rising tolerance to the mind-altering effects of a given amount of alcohol, an inability to set or stick to predetermined limits on alcohol intake, cravings between sessions of alcohol consumption, the onset of withdrawal when the brain’s alcohol demands go unmet and the establishment of a daily routine that puts the acquisition of alcohol, alcohol consumption and recuperation from drinking ahead of important responsibilities or obligations.

The behavioral aspects of alcoholism can closely mimic some of the core problems of non-dependent alcohol abuse. In fact, doctors sometimes have difficulty separating alcoholism-related symptoms from alcohol abuse-related symptoms. In acknowledgment of this situation, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) eliminated separate diagnoses for alcohol abuse and alcoholism in 2013 and replaced those diagnoses with a combined condition called alcohol use disorder. Current APA guidelines call on doctors to classify all serious alcohol problems as aspects of this disorder, whether affected individuals only have alcoholism-related symptoms, only have alcohol abuse-related symptoms or have combined indications of alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

Alcoholism-Related Health Problems

Researchers, doctors and public health officials know that people dependent on alcohol have increased chances of developing a range of serious physical health problems. Some of these problems are uniquely associated with habitual heavy drinking. For example, alcoholics and other heavy drinkers can develop a progressively worsening condition called alcoholic liver disease, which encompasses three distinct ailments (alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis). Other problems found in people with alcoholism and/or non-dependent alcohol abuse include nervous system damage, pancreatitis (an inflamed pancreas), hypertension, gastrointestinal bleeding, serious nutritional deficiencies, certain forms of cancer and a severe brain ailment known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Alcoholism-Related Mortality

In the study published in European Psychiatry, researchers from Germany’s University of Bonn and the United Kingdom’s Royal Derby Hospital used data gathered between 2000 and 2012 to help determine why people affected by alcohol dependence die. This data came from 23,371 people diagnosed with alcoholism, as well as from a comparison group of 233,710 people unaffected by diagnosable alcohol problems. All of the individuals in both groups resided in the metropolitan area of Manchester, England.

The researchers concluded that 20 percent of the study participants with alcoholism died while involved in the project. In comparison, just 8 percent of the participants unaffected by alcoholism died. The alcohol-dependent participants were unusually likely to develop a total of 27 health problems; in addition to alcoholic liver disease and pancreatitis, these problems included kidney disease, nerve-related ailments, broken bones, iron deficiency anemia, peripheral vascular disease and cellulitis. In descending order, the four most likely causes of death are alcoholic liver disease, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (an umbrella term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis) and pneumonia. Overall, people with alcoholism die roughly 7.6 years earlier than people unaffected by serious alcohol problems.

The study’s authors note that alcohol-dependent people actually have unusually low rates for certain potentially life-threatening conditions (e.g., coronary artery disease and diverticulitis). They attribute the higher death rate associated with alcohol dependence to the combined impact of multiple contributors to overall mortality risks.

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