Alcohol problems in youth may have lasting health effects many years later in life
Young adults with symptoms of alcohol dependence may see health effects late in life – even decades after overcoming their alcohol problems, according to a new study.
The study “Residual Effects: Young Adult Diagnostic Drinking Predicts Late-Life Health Outcomes” was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Researchers found that, of 664 U.S. male veterans, those who had symptoms of alcohol dependence for at least five years in young adulthood generally had poorer physical and mental health by the time they were in their 60s. And that was true even if they’d gotten control over their alcohol problems by the age of 30. The researchers write:
Those who [consumed alcohol] at diagnostic levels in young adulthood and in midlife exhibited significant health liabilities on every late-life health measure…”
The findings are based on men taking part in a larger study of Vietnam-era veterans. Haber’s team focused on 368 men who did not report any symptoms of alcohol dependence at any point in adulthood, 221 who had at least three symptoms of dependence in young adulthood and middle-age and 75 who had symptoms in early adulthood but not after the age of 30. Overall, the study found that men who had alcohol dependence symptoms for at least five years in early adulthood scored lower on standard measures of both physical and mental health once they’d reached their 60s.
The findings are surprising, according to the researchers.
Surprising study results
Researchers understand that people’s lives improve when alcohol dependence goes into remission. What is not yet understood is whether there are hidden consequences that remain after heavy alcohol use has ceased. For instance, evidence shows that both brain and body are affected by heavy alcohol intake. Nevertheless, science doesn’t know how long these effects last.
The new findings suggest that years of alcohol dependence during young adulthood result in silent but “permanent” injuries that, in later life, appear to result in serious health problems.
Those with alcohol dependence in young adulthood had, on average, three medical conditions in later life whereas those without history of alcohol problems reported two. In addition, their scores on a depression scale were about twice as high. Most important, these effects were seen even among men who’d been free of dependence symptoms for several decades.
Lasting impact on the brain
This study identified residual effects resulting from persistent young adult diagnostic [alcohol use] (5 or more years) that resulted in negative health outcomes in late life even after decades of remission, the research teams writes.
There is a distal but surprisingly strong association between persistent early life diagnostic [alcohol intake] and late-life morbidity.”
Other studies have shown that chronic alcohol use may injure parts of the brain involved in emotional regulation, self-control and decision making. It means that years of alcohol exposure in early adulthood could have lasting effects on those brain areas.
The researchers emphasize that this study is reporting “averages” and not what any one person is destined for. Therefore, people who not only quit alcohol use but also turn their lifestyle around, including a healthy diet, physical activity and not smoking will likely see health benefits that last into late life. There is a “whole body of literature” showing that when people with alcohol dependence go into recovery, their lives improve in almost every area.