With the heightened level of attention being paid to rising addiction rates and overdoses in the last year or so, most of us have become keenly aware of the most severe and immediate dangers of substance abuse these days. Now more than ever, it is clear that addiction to drugs and alcohol can end – or dramatically alter – the course of young lives. But new research, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs this past month, suggests that some very significant impacts of alcohol misuse can appear much later in life – and can persist long after a person is in recovery and has arrested their active alcoholism. The new study, which examined more than 600 male U.S. veterans, found that those who reported symptoms of alcohol dependence in their younger years experienced more serious medical conditions later in life than non-drinkers and reported issues with depression at twice the rate of their peers.
The new findings are giving more weight to concerns about the long-term damage caused by overindulgence, and suggest that drinking heavily as a young adult may have ‘hidden consequences’ for both physical and mental health by the time a person reaches their 60s. And many health and treatment professionals suggest this and other studies about the perils of alcohol abuse and binge drinking point to the need for redoubled education and prevention efforts that target teens and tweens.
In the study, researchers investigated the effects of drinking among 664 U.S. male Vietnam-era veterans. Within this sample group, 368 individuals did not report any symptoms of alcohol dependence at any point in their adulthood, while 221 had at least three symptoms of dependence in young adulthood, and 75 had symptoms only before the age of 30.
When comparing the overall health of study participants, the researchers found that chronic alcohol use was tied to a higher number of late-life medical conditions, poorer physical health, poorer mental health, and double the rate of depression as their non-drinking counterparts. For example, when checking all of the men’s records against a set of 44 serious health ailments, including heart disease and diabetes, study leaders found that men who were alcohol dependent as young adults tended to suffer from at least three of these conditions later in life. In contrast, non-drinkers tended to have just two of these health problems, on average. Those with alcohol dependence patterns also had lower levels of social support, lower measures of emotional and mental resilience, almost double the disability rate, and nearly twice the risk of premature mortality.
Importantly, these negative impacts of heightened alcohol use remained in place whether the person still drank, or had quit drinking by age 30, suggesting that there are a number of “silent but permanent” injuries that result from alcohol misuse in one’s younger years.
Randy Haber, a clinical psychologist with the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Menlo Park, California and co-author of the study, noted that while the benefits of quitting drinking are significant and profound, a body of well-respected research has shown that chronic drinking can injure parts of the brain involved in self-control and decision-making. It’s possible that years of drinking in early adulthood could have lasting effects on those brain areas, making it more likely that a person would engage in behaviors that are damaging to health, such as smoking or drug abuse. So, just because one gets sober does not mean that they escape long-term damage from risky behaviors.
“It’s possible that those who remitted from problem drinking may have turned to smoking or other drug use,” said Sean Clarkin, director of research and external relations with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “It does raise the possibility that individuals with depression in adolescence and young adulthood may have stopped drinking as a way of dealing with that depression, but then found other [substance abuse] strategies for dealing with it over time. It didn’t go away,” he added.
While the question of whether or not subjects with lasting health effects moved on to use other drugs is unanswered by this particular study, the findings do underscore the importance of early intervention by parents and authority figures when a young person appears to be drinking heavily.
“There’s still an awful lot we don’t know about the long-term effects of substance abuse in adolescents, and what we do know would suggest that prevention efforts are important,” Clarkin argues. “Parents sometimes think it’s a rite of passage and a part of growing up, but persistent drinking in adolescence may have long-term effects.”
If you think your child or a young person you care about has an issue with alcohol, there are things you can, and should, do. Learn about the risks. Show that you understand things like peer and social pressure but point out long-term and undesirable consequences that sometimes accompany experimentation. Be honest about family history and risk factors. And, set a good example. What you do is often more important to young people than what you say. Be responsible yourself and establish a positive tone through your everyday actions.
And, if you believe your loved one is stuck in an addictive relationship with alcohol, help find them treatment. Click here to learn more about our integrative approach to treatment, or call 540-535-1111 to learn more about our programs, rates, and commitment to helping people on the road to recovery.