by Raymond F. Anton, M.D.
Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs
There is a growing concern about, and emphasis on, healthy lifestyles. Weighing the benefits and risks of alcohol consumption should find a place in every lifestyle assessment, a recommendation encouraged by the Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs.
Alcohol has been around for thousands of years. The Bible makes frequent reference to wine being the centerpiece of many religious rites and rituals for ages. Beer was the preferred safe beverage during the Middle Ages when water lacked purity and could cause disease. In Western societies in general, and in the United States in particular, alcohol is part of the cultural fabric. It is a social lubricant and enjoyed by many, with 90 percent of all Americans having had at least one alcohol drink in their lifetime.
Luckily, for those who are moderate social drinkers, men who drink less than 14 drinks a week and no more than two drinks a day, or those women drinking less than seven drinks per week or no more than one per day, alcohol has considerable health benefits. A standard drink is 1.5 oz. of liquor, 12 oz. of beer, or 5 oz. of wine. At these drinking levels, alcohol is known to reduce heart attacks, increase good cholesterol, have a mild anti-clotting effect and might even reduce the risk of dementia. However, as drinks per day increase above these limits, there are increasing negative health consequences.
For instance, it is well documented that drinking more than two drinks per day for men and one for women will elevate blood pressure and at four to five drinks per day for men and three to four drinks for women, the odds of having high blood pressure are substantially increased. It is not widely appreciated that heavy alcohol consumption is the number one leading preventable cause of hypertension.
Many heavier drinkers take antihypertensive medications when a reduction of alcohol consumption might do just as well to lower blood pressure.
At these drinking levels there is a significantly increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and many forms of cancer. For instance, for women receiving hormone replacement and who drink seven to 14 drinks a week, the risk of developing breast cancer goes up tenfold.
For the 7 percent of Americans (14 million adults) who have genetic risk or stress-induced heavy alcohol consumption that leads to life problems (alcohol abuse or dependence) additional problems may occur. For instance, those who drink more than six drinks a day might have problems with memory, concentration and sleep. They accomplish less, might withdraw from social and family activities, and put themselves and others at risk from accidents, such as fires, auto accidents and falls. It is known that about half of all trauma admissions to hospitals involve heavy alcohol use.
The elderly, who already have reduced balance and coordination problems, are more sensitive to alcohol, leading to a higher risk for falls. Since heavy alcohol use can also lead to osteoporosis (softening of bones), the falls can easily cause broken hips, wrists, ribs and vertebrae, as well as head trauma – thereby creating a double health risk. Since alcohol can interact negatively with many medications, these risks are even higher in senior citizens since they are taking more and varied medications.
The good news is that treatments to assist individuals curtail, or stop, their alcohol use are available and new ones are being discovered more frequently at MUSC and at other major alcohol research centers in the country.
For information on MUSC's Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, visit http://clinicaldepartments.musc.edu/cdap or call 792-2727.