Long-Term Effects of Substance Abuse
Actress Carrie Fisher died of heart failure on December 27, 2016, two months after her 60th birthday. Medical experts theorized that years of self-medicating with cocaine and other drugs contributed to weakening her heart.
British rock musician David Bowie suffered multiple heart attacks in the early 2000’s before dying of liver cancer on January 10, 2016, two days after turning 69. He had abused cocaine, heroin and alcohol in the 1970s. Excessive alcohol consumption is a known risk factor for liver cancer.
Singer George Michael, who died of heart failure at age 53, had a history of marijuana abuse and heroin addiction. Musician Gregg Allman, who turned 69 in December 2016 and has a history of substance abuse, suffers from severe respiratory issues and had a liver transplant in 2010.
Such high-profile cases raise concerns about the long-term effects of substance abuse—even for those whose worst abuse may be decades behind them. This article will discuss concerns about long-term physical damage and the special vulnerabilities of people over 60, and will suggest ways to minimize the dangers.
Long-Term Effects: A Modern Concern
Three or four generations ago, there was less concern about long-term health issues because fewer people lived for that long a term. Dying at 60 was nothing unusual, and 65 was a ripe old age. In the medically advanced 21st century, however, dying before 75 is likely to evoke surprise that the person would go so “young.”
The human body is strong enough to resist most accumulated physical damage for 40 or 50 years—then, as overall strength begins to ebb, vulnerability increases:
- Throat cancer is typically diagnosed around age 60.
- The average age for the onset of Parkinson’s disease is 60.
- At least three-fourths of strokes occur in people over 65, the risk doubling each decade after age 55.
- Over 95 percent of Alzheimer’s cases show no symptoms before age 65.
- The average age for a first heart attack is 65 for men, 70 for women.
- Lung cancer is typically diagnosed around age 70.
- The recommended age to begin screenings for colorectal cancer is 50. The disease itself typically does not take hold until a person is around 72.
Before medical science learned to diagnose and treat these illnesses, sickness or death in one’s sixties was typically categorized with the inevitable consequences of “old age.” Today, the 30-year-old substance abuser has every reason to count future health of heart, lungs, liver and other vital organs as motivations for quitting now and not “later.”
Specific Physical Risks
Different substances pose different health risks. The heart, brain, liver and kidneys are the most commonly affected organs.
Among the long-term problems associated with abuse of specific substances:
- Alcohol: Liver failure, permanent cognitive impairment, thickened heart muscle, nerve-pain spasms, buildup of toxins in the blood
- Amphetamines/meth: Heart disease, kidney damage, chronic nausea or diarrhea, insomnia, chronic anxiety or depression, lung damage if smoked, psychosis
- Cocaine: gastrointestinal ulcerations, heart inflammation, increased risk of stroke, loss of cognitive function, hypertension, brain hemorrhage, heart disease
- Heroin/opiates: kidney failure, liver damage
- Marijuana: chronic paranoia, lung damage
(And of course, all of the above carry the additional long-term risk of full-blown physical or psychological addiction.)
Is the Damage Really Permanent?
Youngsters who abuse nicotine are frequently reminded that quitting could mean the difference between rediscovering their energy and athletic skills, and living indefinitely with shortness-of-breath problems. Those who stop smoking find that the chronic cough disappears in six weeks. The chance of a future coronary also diminishes rapidly.
There are parallel examples with most abused substances, but it is unrealistic to assume anyone can quit any kind of drug at any time and expect the whole body to be restored to ideal health within months. Not all damage can fix itself.
Factors that affect risk of irreparable long-term damage include:
- The age of the user. A person under 35 (even with poor health habits) has a more resilient physical system than a 55-year-old, and thus is more likely to recover without lasting ill effects. However, a user under 25 (the age when the brain is believed to reach full maturity) is at greater risk of permanent damage to still-developing parts of the body.
- The length and frequency of abuse. The longer a substance is used regularly, the more cumulative damage will be done—and the harder it will be to quit without relapse.
- Method of use. Smoking any drug presents a risk to the lungs. An inhaled drug can damage the nose lining. Injection carries a danger of vein scarring and needle-transmitted infections.
- The degree to which a user is physically addicted. A seriously dependent person will experience more difficulty quitting and greater risk of relapse, which translates to more drugs being abused over a longer period and thus having the chance to do more damage.
- The user’s individual physical condition. A person already prone genetically to certain problems runs greater risk by taking substances that affect the relevant organs.
- Other aspects of the user’s lifestyle. Exercise, diet, sleep habits and emotional stress all add their own physical effects, positive and negative, to substance abuse and its aftereffects.
What to Do
Obviously, the best way to minimize long-term risks from substance abuse is to never start—and if it’s too late for that, to get professional help in quitting as soon as possible. Attempting to quit on one’s own not only multiplies withdrawal dangers and difficulty in sticking to the resolve, but also may delay the discovery of potential long-term problems.
Other things recovering addicts can do to minimize long-term physical risks include:
- Getting regular physical checkups, along with a doctor’s advice on any high-risk categories the former user falls into.
- Living as healthy a lifestyle as possible in all other aspects.
- Avoiding any obsessing on long-term risks and what it’s “too late” for.
- Having an action plan and support to minimize relapse triggers.
- Having interests and a purpose to live for—staying in the optimal “flow” of life.
It may not be possible to eliminate all long-term risks once the damage is done. But it’s possible to minimize further damage and build a better future overall.