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The Visual Consequences of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

By: Marissa Maldonado On: 10-20-2012 Category: Drug Rehab

Drug and alcohol addiction has numerous consequences, including legal, social, psychological and physical. Drug awareness campaigns often emphasize these negative consequences, especially the health problems associated with substance abuse. Despite the best efforts of these awareness campaigns, there are still around 23.5 million Americans with substance abuse problems.

A new video produced by Rehabs.com humanizes the statistics about substance abuse. It presents imagery of the faces of drug users in an innovative way: time lapsed images created by multiple mug shots of the same person over a period of time. This video concretely shows the accelerated aging and other physical deformities caused by drug use, rather than focusing on the health consequences.

In a visually stunning way, this video emphasizes another reason not to use drugs or alcohol: vanity. In a society obsessed with youth and beauty, seeing how the tough life of a drug addict can alter one’s physical features just might deter some people from turning to these substances.

Mug Shots Of Drug Arrests

The video uses mug shots from people with multiple arrests related to drugs over several years. There is a disclaimer on the site that the people featured remain innocent until proven guilty, and that the physical changes are not necessarily entirely due to drug use. Many of these people most likely have been through some difficult life experiences and been exposed to other environmental influences that would harm their health and physical appearance.

There is evidence demonstrating drug and alcohol abuse can significantly age a person, as well as lead to diseases and other physical consequences.

The Human Aging Process

Researchers have not yet discovered why some people age better than others, although they do know some basic elements that contribute to the aging process. Just as with other life processes, aging occurs on a cellular level. Genetics play a role in the aging process, especially the mitochondria DNA inherited from the mother.

However, external influences play a significant role in how quickly one ages, especially the physical signs of aging, such as wrinkles and gray hair. These influences include diet, exercise, lifestyle choices, drug and alcohol use, and stress. As cells age, they weaken, making them more susceptible to damage, and to disease. Certain factors can expedite the aging process of the cells. The major areas of research about the aging process include the telomeres, free radicals, and epigenetics.

Telomeres and Aging

Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes at the end of the chromosomes that protect the DNA in each cell. As cells reproduce, the telomeres get shorter and shorter. When the telomeres become too short or are damaged, the cells age and die faster. According to this branch of research, a person’s biological age can be measured based on the length of his or her telomeres.

When they become extremely short, it triggers an SOS response in the cells, causing one of three responses: turning off the replication process (becoming senescent), dying (apoptosis), or continuing to divide with damage to the DNA, which increases the risk of problems including diseases such as cancer.

Studies have shown that a healthy lifestyle can actually increase the telomere length and thereby reverse, or at least slow down, the aging process, as well as prevent and treat various diseases including cancer. The converse is true as well. An unhealthy lifestyle can damage these telomeres, expediting the aging and death of the cells, which in turn affects all the major organs of the body, including the skin. A person will be more vulnerable to disease, and look and feel older.

The Problem with Free Radicals

Many experts also believe that free radicals cause aging and disease. When cells metabolize, they release oxygen free radicals, creating metabolic or oxidative stress. These free radicals can cause damage in the body by reacting with surrounding molecules and creating instability, which is called oxidation.

It can actually lead to a chain reaction in cells, not stopping until one of the molecules is stabilized by breaking or rearranging itself rather than passing on the instability. The body uses antioxidants, which it creates and also gets through certain foods, to counter some of the damage caused by the free radicals.

A certain number of free radicals are produced through normal cell metabolism. Environmental toxins can contribute even more free radicals, which can speed up the damage to the cells, which in turn causes aging and disease. Examples of environmental toxins include UV damage, an unhealthy diet, cigarette smoke, pollution, drugs, and alcohol.

Epigenetics

Epigenetics, or the combination of genetics and environmental effects on the human body, is another area of research involving the aging process. At the center of this research is the epigenome, which are the chemical modifications in the DNA that tell the cells what to do. These markers are affected by the environment and a person’s lifestyle choices.

Gene expression – the process by which a gene regulates cell function – can be altered by food, alcohol, lifestyle choices, drugs, smoking, pollution, and other influences. Many of these epigenetic changes are harmless; however, certain environmental factors can lead to a gene expressing itself in a way that can cause disease or other damage to the body.

Cells are wired to repair damage. Every day, the DNA in the human cells will encounter millions of damaging events. Typically, DNA has the ability to repair the damage without consequence. However, the repair mechanism can be disrupted, causing the damage to the DNA to remain. Depending on the severity of the damage, serious consequences can occur.

The Effect of Drugs and Alcohol on Aging

Drug and alcohol abuse causes damage to the body at a cellular level, which can expedite the aging process and cause premature mortality. Additionally, it puts undue stress on the body, especially if some of the major organs are damaged, which also contributes to premature and accelerated cellular aging. Much of this damage is associated with the physical signs of aging, such as wrinkles, gray hair, sullen or ashen pallor, brittle bones and nails, and more.

Therefore, drug and alcohol abuse can make a person look much older than he or she really is. It also can age a person quickly, even in just a few years of abuse. Although expedited aging is a consequence of taking drugs or abusing alcohol, it is by no means the most serious. However, it is often the easiest to see, which is why the video from Rehabs.com is so visually impactful.

Other Consequences of Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Taking drugs can increase a person’s risk of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV, due to dirty drug paraphernalia, especially needles, and a lowered immune response. It also causes reckless behavior, which could lead to unsafe sex. Substance abuse also damages all the major body mechanisms, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal, endocrine and gastrointestinal systems.

The kidneys and liver are very susceptible to damage because their role is to remove toxins from the body. Drugs also affect the chemistry and structure of the brain. They can also cause mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia, and aggression, and decrease cognitive function.

Treatment for Addiction and Substance Abuse

Sovereign Health Group offers state-of-the-art, evidence-based treatment for drugs and alcohol addiction. Our programs not only treat the addiction, they also provide help for underlying and co-occurring conditions for a holistic cure that reduces the risk of relapse. We also offer mental health disorder treatment and dual diagnosis. You can learn more about our programs here, or you can call our Admissions team at this 866-264-9778.

photo credit: dno1967b via photopin cc

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