Does Substance Use Cause Premature Aging?

Smiling man who is feeling great in sobriety

Premature aging is a concern for those who regularly engage in substance use. With so many serious threats to their health, you may not think that premature aging is a big deal for someone with addiction. However, aging is more than wrinkles and gray hair. It also involves premature mortality and early onset of disease. 

You may also be surprised to learn that it doesn’t take much to cause premature aging. For instance, one study found that daily consumption of liquor for five years was associated with a four-month acceleration in biological aging. So, if you were to drink liquor daily for 15 years, your biological age (the age of your cells) is actually one year older. One episode of binge drinking can also raise your biological age by a month-and-a-half. 

Let’s learn more about how substance use can accelerate aging and cognitive decline. 

What is Biological Aging? 

As mentioned earlier, biological aging is more than gray hair and wrinkly skin. This type of aging refers to how old your cells are. Your chronological age is how much time has passed from birth to a given date, but your biological age comes from your genetics, environment and behavioral factors. 

When your biological age becomes higher than your chronological age, you are said to be aging prematurely. There are many different factors that can cause accelerated aging, and substance use is one of them. Not only does drug or alcohol use in itself damage cells and speed up the aging process, but also the lifestyle does as well. 

How Does Substance Use Affect Premature Aging? 

Drug use changes the way the brain works. No matter what the consequences are, people with addiction will continue to seek out substances. They have learned to rely on drugs or alcohol to feel “normal.” And, if they try to stop using, they can experience intense withdrawal effects that make them want to return to use. This is what allows the cycle to continue, and why a person may no longer seem to care about their appearance or health. 

Furthermore, chronic substance use puts the body under stress, which also ages the cells. It increases exposure to infections through needles and sexual practices, triggering inflammation. People who use drugs or alcohol also tend to live an unhealthy lifestyle. They may not eat healthy or exercise regularly, and they often don’t get quality sleep to restore their body. 

What Effect Does Substance Use Have on the Brain? 

Engaging in regular drug or alcohol use doesn’t just affect the physical body—it also has an impact on the brain’s structure. The inflammation and stress hormones that are brought on from the substance use can exacerbate normal age-related changes in the brain—and these changes can start happening sooner than you think. 

By age 40, the brain’s volume (or weight) declines by 5 percent every decade. Men tend to lose more of their frontal lobe, while women tend to lose more of the parietal lobe. As the brain shrinks, people also lose neurotransmitters, synapses and receptors. Regular substance use can accelerate the process, causing cognitive decline faster. Cocaine, in particular, appears to age brain cells more rapidly. 

Girl smiling and feeling great in sobriety

Why Substance Use Also Affects Physical Appearance 

As you’ve probably noticed, drug or alcohol use can also affect a person’s physical appearance. In the early stages of addiction, there generally is little to no effect on how a person looks. However, over time, substance use catches up to people. It weakens the immune system, depletes nutrients from the skin and can cause other problems such as tooth decay, sores or sunken eyes. 

For example, dehydration is common in people who use substances. Drug and alcohol use can leave the body malnourished and dehydrated, leading to organ damage and skin damage. When the skin is dehydrated, it can experience regular breakouts, age spots and hyperpigmentation. If the person picks or scratches at their skin (common with meth use), they may also develop sores and scarring.  

Can Sobriety Reverse the Aging Process? 

A person who regularly engages in substance use isn’t just aging on the outside—they are aging on the inside, too. This puts them at a higher risk for early mortality and morbidity. Fortunately, you can often reverse this process by seeking recovery and quitting drugs or alcohol. This gives your body a chance to heal and restore itself so that it can function optimally. 

Let’s look at the health benefits that can be yours if you commit to a substance abuse treatment program and seek sobriety: 

  • Lower your risk of contracting bacterial, viral and parasitic infections. 
  • Reduce the risk of developing brain damage. Drugs and alcohol increase blood flow to the brain, increasing the risk for seizures and stroke. 
  • Lower the chances of developing heart disease. Not only do drugs and alcohol increase blood flow, but also people who use these substances are more likely to have high blood pressure. 
  • Minimize the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Substance use tends to make people less cautious during sexual encounters. The use of needles also puts people at risk for STDs. 
  • Enhance your mental capacity. Refraining from drugs and alcohol allows your brain to function at its best, improving memory and cognitive skills.
  • Improve your immune system health. People who use substances have lower immune systems, causing them to get sick more frequently with illness. 
  • Support healthy sleep habits, which gives your brain and body a chance to rest and recover. Adequate sleep also boosts mood and energy, making you more likely to engage in healthy activities like exercise and spending time with friends. 

Sobriety—It Looks Great and Feels Even Better! 

Premature aging is just one of the many negative effects of substance use. By starting treatment and stopping the use of drugs or alcohol, you can significantly improve your physical health and appearance and add valuable years onto your lifespan. To take the next step to recovery, contact Recovery Cove at 484-549-COVE