What happens when you drink?

How alcohol affects you in the longer term

Drinking not only affects you at the time when you are drinking, but it can have long-term effects that may be positive or negative. Your drinking pattern is a major factor in how your drinking may influence your quality of life.

Regular heavy drinking is associated with a range of health and social harms, including damage to your internal organs, risk of accidents and injuries, and difficulties in functioning positively in family, work, and community life. Liver damage is strongly associated with long-term heavy drinking and may culminate in cirrhosis.

Scientific studies have associated heavy drinking over long periods of time with an increased risk of certain forms of cancer. This includes evidence of some increased risk of breast cancer, even in women who drink moderately. Alcohol has been classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the level of risk depends on how much and how often you drink. It also depends on how your body processes alcohol because the cancer-causing substances, such as acetaldehyde, are produced during metabolism. Someone’s genetic makeup, personal health, nutrition, and other lifestyle factors also play a role.

Some drinkers regularly abuse alcohol, and within this group is a smaller population of people who are alcohol-dependent. People who drink excessively have an increased risk of becoming alcohol-dependent, or “alcoholic.” Health experts have developed various tests that you can use to learn if your drinking may be a problem. You can get access to one of these tests here.

People who drink alcohol in smaller quantities are not without risk, but these patterns of consumption can also be associated with positive health outcomes. For example, there is a substantial body of scientific evidence showing that moderate drinking by middle-aged and older men and post-menopausal women is related to a reduced risk of heart and other cardiovascular diseasesadult onset diabetes, and slower cognitive decline as one ages.

Moderate drinkers may also enjoy the pleasures of drinking at meals and other social occasions where they make meaningful connections with family, friends, and their community. Social interaction and sense of belonging can be important contributions to health and well-being. By no means is alcohol necessary for such well-being, but the social aspects of moderate drinking are enjoyed by many.

Here’s where you can learn more about the health effects of drinking.