Understanding the health impact of alcohol dependence

Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2007 Mar 1;64(5 Suppl 3):S5-11. doi: 10.2146/ajhp060647.


Purpose: To review the effects of alcohol dependence on physical and mental health.

Summary: Alcohol dependence is wide-spread among people of all ages and socioeconomic groups. Persons with alcohol dependence face enormous health consequences. Alcohol dependence is a major cause of mortality and is associated with psychiatric conditions, neurologic impairment, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and malignant neoplasms. Psychiatric conditions associated with alcohol dependence include major depression, dysthymia, mania, hypomania, panic disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, personality disorders, any drug use disorder, schizophrenia, and suicide. Psychiatric comorbidity, in turn, is associated with alcohol-related symptoms of greater severity. Excessive alcohol consumption causes brain damage, as evidenced by brain imaging, and related neurologic deficits, including impairments in working memory, cognitive processing of emotional signals, executive functions, visuospatial abilities, and gait and balance. Whereas moderate alcohol consumption is cardioprotective, heavy drinking is associated with increased risks of hypertension, coronary heart disease, and ischemic stroke, possibly due to alcohol-induced sympathetic activation. Chronic excessive alcohol consumption is a strong risk factor for various types of cancer, particularly cancers of the aero-respiratory tract, but also cancers of the digestive system, liver, breast, and ovaries. Heavy drinking is associated with various forms of alcoholic liver disease, such as cirrhosis. (People with alcohol dependence die from cirrhosis at a much higher rate than is found in the general population.) Alcohol dependence also increases the risk of injury, possibly due to alcohol-related factors such as diminished coordination and balance, increased reaction time, and impaired attention, perception, and judgment.

Conclusion: Alcohol dependence has numerous and serious ill effects on physical and mental health and represents a major public health burden.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / complications*
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • United States / epidemiology