In Australia, almost 6,000 deaths a year can be attributed to alcohol, as well as around 400 hospitalisations a day. While drinking has declined in some segments of the population, with related stabilising of rates of death and illness, these numbers are far too high. Similar reports are emerging in other countries.
Many people remain unaware, blissfully or otherwise, of long-term risks, which aren’t just restricted to “heavy drinkers”. Alcohol is one of the largest risk factors for avoidable death and illness.
The growing list of alcohol-related diseases includes bowel cancers, mouth and oesophageal cancers, breast cancers, heart disease, respiratory infections and mental health problems. Some evidence is emerging of a link with other diseases such as prostate cancer.
We have also seen the transgenerational impact through fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). These are lifelong and severe disorders that occur as a result of exposure to alcohol in the womb.
Here are four diseases evidence shows are linked strongly with alcohol consumption.
In total, cancers account for the largest proportion (more than one-third, or around 2,000 Australian deaths a year) of alcohol-attributable deaths. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death for women, followed by liver disease. For men, the leading cause is liver disease, followed by bowel cancer.
2. Heart disease
There are strong claims about the benefits of low doses of alcohol.
But systematic reviews (where multiple studies are analysed) conclude that there is no net benefit, or very limited benefit, of moderate drinking over abstention. Even where protective effects for the heart are identified, these are often at very low levels of consumption (such as one standard drink every other day).
Alcohol consumption affects judgment, reaction time and contributes to risk-taking. Alcohol-related injuries from falls, drowning, vehicle accidents and violence contribute to a high proportion of hospitalisations in Australia and overseas.
4. Neuropsychiatric disorders
Neuropsychiatric conditions, which include alcohol dependence and abuse, are the leading causes of alcohol-attributable hospitalisations (37%) in Australia.
Mental health conditions associated with alcohol include depression, self-harm and suicide.
If you need to speak to someone about alcohol or identify helping services, please call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.
If you or anyone you know needs help, visit beyondblue or call Lifeline’s 24-hour helpline on 13 11 14.