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The long-term health risks of drinking alcohol

The short-term effects of drinking alcohol are usually obvious. However, if you regularly drink too much alcohol, you can be putting your long-term health at risk. There can be hidden harmful effects of drinking alcohol that may not become apparent until years later.

Video: how alcohol affects the body long term

Alcohol and cancer

Drinking as little as three units of alcohol a day increases your risk of developing many types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach), liver, breast and bowel.

Key facts

  • Evidence indicates that alcohol is linked to 12,500 cases of cancer in the UK each year.
  • If you smoke and drink, you’re up to 50 times more likely to get some types of cancer than someone who never smokes or drinks alcohol.
  • All types of alcoholic drinks increase the risk of cancer, even red wine. It’s the alcohol that causes damage, not the type of drink it’s in.

Alcohol, the heart and circulation

Regularly drinking too much alcohol damages your heart and increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Damage to your heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) can cause it to pump blood around your body less effectively. It can also lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).

Key facts

  • Men who regularly drink more than eight units of alcohol a day (double the recommended amount) nearly double their risk of coronary heart disease, are four times more likely to have high blood pressure and double their risk of stroke.
  • Women who regularly drink more than six units of alcohol a day (double the recommended amount) are also slightly more likely to develop coronary heart disease, double their risk of high blood pressure and are four times more likely to have a stroke.

Alcohol and your liver

Alcohol damages your liver. Your liver is the largest organ in your body and one of its many functions is to filter and clean your blood. It takes about one hour for your liver to break down one unit of alcohol. If you regularly drink too much alcohol, you are at risk of developing a range of alcoholic liver diseases including fatty liver disease, hepatitis and alcohol-induced cirrhosis (fibrosis or scarring of your liver). If you cut down or stop drinking in the early stages of liver disease, your liver may recover. However, continuing to drink when your liver is damaged can lead to complete liver failure.

Key facts

  • One in three adults in the UK drinks enough alcohol to be at risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease.
  • The process is silent, but when liver disease has developed, the symptoms come on suddenly and it can be life-threatening.
  • In 2010, alcohol-related liver diseases were responsible for over six out of 10 alcohol-related deaths in the UK.
  • If you have liver cirrhosis, you’re more likely to develop liver cancer.

Alcohol and your pancreas

Alcohol damages your pancreas. Your pancreas is an organ that lies behind your stomach and produces digestive enzymes which help to break down fatty food, as well as insulin, which helps control blood sugar. If you drink too much alcohol, it can lead to acute or chronic pancreatitis. With acute pancreatitis, your pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time. Chronic pancreatitis is when your pancreas continues to be inflamed over a long period of time, and the damage may be permanent.

Key facts

  • One in five people who have acute pancreatitis have a severe form and the condition causes 950 deaths every year in the UK.
  • Around seven out of 10 people who have chronic pancreatitis are heavy drinkers who drink long-term.
  • One in three people who have chronic pancreatitis will develop diabetes. This is because your damaged pancreas can no longer make insulin.

Alcohol, sex and reproduction

Regularly drinking more than the daily recommended amount is known to affect fertility in both men and women.

Key facts

  • In women, alcohol can disrupt menstrual cycles and ovulation which makes it harder to conceive.
  • In men, alcohol can reduce testosterone levels and this can cause loss of sexual desire and affect sperm production. Alcohol also affects the nervous system, making it difficult for men to achieve or maintain an erection.

Alcohol and your mental health

Drinking heavily over a long time can severely affect your mental health. It can increase anxiety and cause depression. It’s also associated with risk-taking behaviour, personality disorders, schizophrenia and suicide.

Key facts

  • Alcohol alters the chemistry in your brain and increases your risk of depression.
  • After a few weeks of cutting out alcohol, you’re likely to feel less depressed.

Alcohol and your nervous system

Regular heavy alcohol use can lead to nerve and brain damage, resulting in memory problems, dementia and damage to small nerve endings.

Key facts

  • Regular heavy alcohol use can cause a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) which can, if left untreated, lead to permanent memory loss.
  • Some research has shown that heavy drinking over time may cause damage to your brain, which can cause problems with learning, thinking and problem solving. These effects may to some extent be reversible if you stop drinking.

It’s not possible to be precise about how much is safe for individual men and women to drink. Current guidelines, however, recommend not regularly drinking more than three or four units a day for men, and two or three units a day for women. Although ‘Regularly’ means every day or most days of the week, it’s a good idea to have at least two alcohol-free days a week so you don’t go over the limits. So over a week, men shouldn’t have more than 21 units and women shouldn’t have more than 14 units.

This doesn’t mean you can save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. A drinking binge is generally defined as drinking double the daily recommended units in one session.

If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Talking to a close friend, a support group or your GP can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink.


Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, December 2012.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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