The Damage Done by Alcohol: Hard Statistics on Heavy Drinking

Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., leading to almost 88,000 deaths annually. Alcohol Awareness Month aims to shine the spotlight on statistics like this, which reveal the wide-ranging harm alcohol causes in our society, and many of the figures don’t make for pleasant reading. The cold, hard statistics on the damage done by alcohol — in particular for those addicted to alcohol or who regularly engage in binge drinking — have the power to make us think again about our drinking.

How Many People Drink?

The widespread nature of alcohol use has a big part to play in the large numbers of deaths it causes every year: in 2012, 87.6 percent of people aged 18 or over reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lifetimes, 71 percent had drunk alcohol in the last year and 56.3 percent — still a majority — drank in the past month. Alongside this, 24.6 percent of those aged 18 or over report binge drinking and 7.1 percent report heavy drinking (classed as five or more drinks per occasion on five or more occasions), both in the past month.

Underage drinking is also shockingly common, with 24.3 percent of those aged 12 to 20 reporting drinking in the past month in 2012. Additionally, 15 percent report binge drinking and 4.3 percent report heavy drinking in the past month. All of these figures were slightly higher in males than females.

How Many Alcoholics Are There, and How Many Receive Treatment?

About 17 million adults aged 18 or over (7.2 percent of all adults) were classed as having an alcohol use disorder in 2012, 9.9 percent of men and 4.6 percent of women. Of these adults in need of treatment, only 8.4 percent actually received it. For youth aged 12 to 17, around 855,000 (3.4 percent of all youth in this age group) had an alcohol use disorder (with girls being slightly more likely to have such a condition), and only an estimated 8.9 percent of those in need received treatment.

How Many Deaths Are Caused by Alcohol?

Around 88,000 deaths in the U.S. per year are related to alcohol, including 62,000 deaths of men and 26,000 of women. Additionally, there were 10,322 deaths related to alcohol-impaired driving, which accounts for 31 percent — almost a third — of all driving fatalities. Around the world, 3.3 million deaths were related to alcohol in 2012, accounting for 5.9 percent of all deaths globally.

How Common Is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or five drinks (for women or men, respectively) in the space of around two hours, or technically any amount that raises the blood alcohol content to 0.08 percent or more. Binge drinking is the most common form of excessive alcohol consumption in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more than half of all the alcohol consumed in the U.S. being in the form of binge drinks. Of adults who drink excessively, 92 percent report binge drinking in the past month.

Overall, one in six U.S. adults reports binge drinking about four times a month — probably every weekend — with an average of eight drinks consumed per binge. Although binge drinking is commonly associated with younger drinkers, 70 percent of binge drinking episodes actually involve adults aged over 26, and those aged 65 or over binge drink more often than most, up to six times per month.

Binge drinking is most prevalent in those aged 18 to 34, though, and as many would expect, college students also binge drink quite regularly. For those under 21, about 90 percent of the alcohol they consume is in the form of binge drinks.

Binge drinking has many impacts even outside of the ordinary risks of alcohol consumption. For one, binge drinkers are 14 times more likely to drive alcohol-impaired as non-binge drinkers. Binge drinking also increases the risk of intentional and unintentional injury, boosts the risk of alcohol poisoning and increases the chance of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and unintentionally becoming pregnant.

The Health Risks of Drinking

Drinking alcohol is associated with a multitude of health risks, affecting the heart, brain, liver, pancreas and immune system, as well as increasing your risk of developing several types of cancer. For the brain, alcohol alters its functioning, affecting your mood and behavior, impacting coordination and reducing your ability to think clearly. The biggest impact on the brain is undeniably addiction, though, because it drives you to drink more and thereby increase the chances of developing all other alcohol-related illnesses and experience severe impacts on your work and home life.

Long-term drinking and even short-term excessive drinking can have several effects on the heart, including causing high blood pressure, arrhythmias, strokes and cardiomyopathy, which is a sagging and stretching of the heart muscle. Your risk of mouth, esophageal, throat, liver and breast cancer is increased by drinking, and alcohol also impairs your immune system.

The effects on the liver are among the most well-known risks of drinking, with alcoholic fatty liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis (the buildup of dead, inactive tissue in the liver) all being possible effects. In the pancreas, alcohol also stimulates the production of toxic chemicals that can cause pancreatitis, a condition that impairs digestion and leads to inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels.

Beating Addiction to Avoid Becoming a Statistic

For those struggling with alcoholism, the numerous health risks associated with excessive drinking are an important reminder of why beating addiction is essential. The more you drink, the more you increase your risk of a wide range of very serious health problems, and while others may be able to continue drinking in moderation, those battling addiction usually don’t have that option.

The statistics also paint a picture of the widespread excessive drinking in our society, with the majority of alcohol sold in America being consumed as part of a binge. This is a clear reminder of the importance of awareness-raising campaigns to ensure people are adequately informed about the risks they take every time they exceed recommended drinking limits.

The biggest and perhaps most troubling lesson from the statistics is that a shockingly low proportion of people in need of support actually receive it. If we’re to reduce the impact alcohol has on our society, helping problem drinkers and alcoholics find the support they need should be the number one priority.

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