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Does Drug and Alcohol Abuse Make You Age Faster?

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

January 25, 2019

Drugs and alcohol, used both sporadically and chronically, have been shown to accelerate certain aging processes. The dehydration, malnutrition, inflammation, and weakened immune response caused by substance abuse cause cellular damage and cognitive decline. Skin, bones, and other organs bear the brunt of this damage, leaving many drug abusers looking, and feeling, far older than they are.

In a day and age where beauty regimens and anti-aging products line store shelves and proclaim their promises on TV and social media, many Americans are familiar with the infamous pursuit of the “fountain of youth.”

But while many of us are quick to apply these products externally to stop the aging process, we may forget that what we’re putting into our body can actually cause us to age faster. If you use drugs or alcohol, on either a limited or chronic basis, there’s a good chance you’re causing more extensive damage than just wrinkles.

What Does It Mean To Age?

In the common vernacular, aging is many times used to describe physical appearance. Sometimes what makes a person look older isn’t aging, technically speaking, but simply external damage which makes us appear further along in years. Wear and tear from how we live changes the way our skin, hair, teeth, and eyes appear. As these changes become more pronounced, it creates the impression of aging.

In its truest sense, aging occurs on a cellular level. That is, the cells which make up these and other tissues begin to age. And while the external, physical form of our bodies is surely one of the most apparent ways we age, aging occurs on many levels beyond this.

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Signs Of Aging From Drug And Alcohol Abuse

Many adverse effects attributed to aging actually occur beneath our skin. Within a life of substance abuse, organ and biological systems which are essential for our good health and overall functioning begin to age as well. Further, chronic drug abuse can cause a person’s mental states and brain structure to deteriorate.

Here are some ways that drug and alcohol abuse can age you:

  • Bones: Many forms of drug abuse leach calcium from your body, weakening your bones over time. Abuse can lead to bone loss, bone death (and joint replacements), and even drug-induced osteoporosis, a risk which scientists believe runs higher with opioid addictions.
  • Cognitive Functions: Substance abuse can cause a person’s cognitive states to decline, with some impacts rendering permanent damage, insofar that actual brain damage results. In the least, confusion becomes problematic.
  • Joint Pain: Alcohol abuse can aggravate certain inflammatory conditions which cause joint pain, including arthritis and osteoarthritis. These infirmities produce an aged demeanor as a person’s mobility declines.
  • Memory: Alcohol and benzodiazepine abuse have been linked to increased dementia risk and possibly Alzheimer’s. Even without progressing to these severe states, many forms of substance abuse can limit a person’s ability to form, store, or recall pertinent information.
  • Hair: As substance abuse generates a malnourished state, the lack of vitamins and minerals leaves your hair dull and lifeless.
  • Teeth: Substance abuse causes the user’s risk of dental and periodontal diseases to climb. This is made visible by decaying, missing, rotting, or fractured teeth.
  • Skin: Our skin needs hydration, vitamins, and minerals to stay vital. Without these things, it’s harder for our skin to heal and fight damage.
  • Organ Systems: Substance abuse is linked to organ damage, disease, and/or failure, including that which affects cardiac, respiratory, brain, liver, and kidney systems, among others.

Why Does Alcohol And Drug Abuse Age You?

Drug abuse (including alcohol) can ravage a person’s body in a way which makes them age far more rapidly than their sober counterparts. This is due to:

  • Dehydration: Substance abuse is vastly dehydrating. And without this vital hydration, our skin is more prone to wrinkles and dryness, our bones to brittleness and loss, and our organs to dysfunction and disease.
  • Drug-Induced Behaviors: Certain drugs of abuse like opioids or stimulants (meth and crack) cause people to pick at their skin. This leads to sores, scars, and even small abscesses, all of which serve to make a person look more haggard and aged.
  • Inflammation: Many alcoholic drinks contain excess carbohydrates and sugars. Other forms of substance abuse lead to poor diets laden with these substances. According to Dr. Jessica Krant, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, carbs and sugar lead “to systemic inflammation, which contributes ultimately to cell damage and increased skin aging.”
  • Poor Immune System: Substance abuse depresses your immune system, even after only one night of drinking or using. With chronic use, this effect is greater. Our cells and organs (including our skin) all require a fully-functioning immune system to heal and renew.
  • Malnourishment: Prolonged drug and/or alcohol abuse depletes your body of essential nutrients and vitamins, many of which are essential for cellular growth, rejuvenation, and repair. These effects damage your skin, bones, organs, and brain, leading to various infirmities and disease.
  • Sleep Deprivation: Drugs and alcohol disrupt sleep quality and reduce the amount of time many individuals sleep. Sleep is restorative and a critical component of cellular and cognitive upkeep.

What Types Of Drugs Can Age You?

Certain drugs impact your body more harshly than others, especially when it comes to the way they age you. The bottom line is, that any type of drug abuse affects your body in a detrimental way, though the effects of some are more obvious and serious than others.

To help you better understand this toll, here’s some drugs which stand out in their capacity to age users:

Alcohol Abuse And Addiction Age You

Alcohol addictions leave many people looking aged beyond their years. But do you realize that binge drinking, or what many consider an acceptable, “fun” night out, may actually be aging you too? And if you’re consuming alcohol more frequently than this, or chronically within an addicted state, this adverse effect is compounded.

Alcohol depletes your body’s hydration, nutrients, and even oxygen levels, all of which are critical elements of vital, supple skin. Vitamin A takes a huge hit when alcohol enters your body. This vitamin is an:

  • Essential precursor to collagen (which is a key component of our skin’s elasticity and wrinkle-fighting ability).
  • Antioxidant, which boosts immune functioning and cellular regeneration.

And even more, alcohol is a vasodilator, which means it brings more blood to your face. This can can leave you looking puffy, swollen, and red. Chronic use can damage your skin and create enlarged or broken capillaries on your face, and a rosacea-like effect.

The journal Neurology found that middle-aged men who drank roughly 2.5 standard drinks a day (which unfortunately is the amount of alcohol in many freehand, poured mixed drinks or even popular craft beers) had greater cognitive decline than those who drank less. These effects equated to nearly six years of extra aging for those within this age bracket.   

The Destruction Of Crystal Meth

One of the most infamous drugs to cause rapid physical aging is crystal meth. Due to the way this drug affects a person’s tissues and behaviors, meth abusers exhibit some pretty pronounced signs of physical decline. These individuals “burn a lot of energy and don’t eat well. This can make them lose weight and look sick,” as explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Even more, their skin can appear sickly, saggy, and lined, and be pocked and pitted from sores and acne which won’t heal. Meth destroys people’s teeth (“meth mouth”), which makes users mouth’s become sunken. This, along with hollow cheeks from lost of body fat, adds to the aged look.

Cocaine Has Been Shown To Age The Brain

Cocaine, a drug which has been glamorized as a social, party drug, may actually be aging users, as reported by Science . “According to a new imaging study, cocaine abusers in their 30s and 40s show brain changes more commonly seen in people over 60….Studies show that middle-aged drug abusers often have problems more commonly seen in the elderly,” such as:

  • Memory loss
  • Greater susceptibility to infection
  • Heightened risk of cardiovascular disease

For most people, some brain shrinkage is an inevitable part of aging. But scientists found that the amount of shrinkage for cocaine abusers was nearly two times that of those who didn’t use.

Substance Abuse Can Cause Premature Death Too

Substance abuse doesn’t just cause premature aging. Speaking in regards to drug abuse in general, the Science article warns that “Rates of premature death among drug abusers are up to eight times higher than in the general population, according to some estimates.”

Don’t Let Substance Abuse Take Years From Your Life

If you’re concerned that drug abuse or addiction is aging you and jeopardizing your health and life, don’t put off asking for help any longer. Contact us today. RehabCenter.net’s confidential assessment will help you find a healthier, sober life.

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