You may be wondering, “Is Drug Use Aging Me?” When considering what causes accelerated aging, it’s important not to overlook drug use.
At its most basic, aging is simply the process of getting older. Wisdom and perspective can come with age, but so does physical decline. As the days, weeks and years pass, our bodies accumulate damage to cells and tissues. Drug and alcohol use can contribute to and speed up the damage in numerous ways.
Everyone has both a chronological age (how long you’ve been alive) and biological age. Healthline explains that your biological age (also called your functional or physiological age) is how old your body acts like it is. As they note, “If you’re a 28-year-old male who doesn’t exercise, only eats high-fat foods, and has smoked five packs of cigarettes per day for the last 10 years, it’s likely you would have a biological age of greater than 28 years.” Aging is said to be accelerated when your biological age is more than your chronological one.
Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
Different drugs can accelerate aging in different ways, but there are some common underlying causes. An article on what causes accelerated aging notes that oxidative stress and inflammation both play important roles.
Oxidative stress occurs when the balance is off between compounds known as free radicals and those known as antioxidants. Most addictive substances, including alcohol, opioids, cocaine, amphetamine and inhalants, induce oxidative stress, which can have wide-ranging aging effects on the body.
Inflammation can also have wide-ranging negative effects. Many drugs are known to increase inflammation in the body and brain, and people with addiction have higher levels of a protein produced by inflammation, injury, or infection. As you might expect, using multiple substances makes things worse.
So How is Drug Use Aging You?
Drug use can accelerate aging in parts of your body that are both visible and hidden, including the following:
A Metro article on cocaine and your skin lists many ways that using the drug can have visible effects. It’s a vasoconstrictor, meaning that it makes blood vessels narrower. When it does, it reduces the blood supply to your body’s cells, and they don’t get all the oxygen and nutrients they need. Your skin may become wrinkled or pale and won’t heal quickly.
It also won’t regenerate (repair or replace cells) as rapidly. As a result, you may develop acne because more dead cells are hanging around to clog pores. Other possible skin reactions to using cocaine include redness, rashes, eczema, skin ulcers, blisters and red or brown patches.
When you use cocaine, your skin is more likely to become dry and dehydrated, and sometimes the dryness and lack of regeneration cause tingling or itchiness. When people scratch their skin, it can damage it, and the damage is slow to heal, sometimes leaving scars and discoloration.
Other drugs may have similar skin aging effects through a similar process. An article on substance abuse and blood flow to the brain notes that many substances are vasoconstrictors. These include alcohol in high doses, sedatives, and inhalants.
Wrinkled and dry skin makes your face look older. But it isn’t the only way drug abuse can show up there. The Metro article notes that “The cheeks may appear sunken and emaciated, making one look prematurely aged.” Eyes and teeth may also be affected.
Alcohol and bloodshot eyes are a common combination. An eye clinic explains that this is because when alcohol impairs the transport of oxygen to the red blood cells, it causes blood vessels to clump together. This effect results in both bloodshot eyes and a ruddy complexion. An article on the eye effects of illicit drugs adds that other drugs can also cause eye redness, including heroin and cannabinoids like marijuana.
As for teeth, one particular drug has become so associated with bad teeth that the American Dental Association wrote an article on “Meth Mouth.” Methamphetamine is notoriously bad for dental health, causing cavities (96% of users), untreated tooth decay (58% of users), and missing teeth (31% of users had six or more missing). The article notes that the teeth of people addicted to methamphetamine tend to be “blackened, stained, rotting, crumbling and falling apart.”
In an article on the effects of substance abuse on teeth, a: dental center notes that meth is acidic and wears down enamel. It also causes dry mouth, which contributes to more acidity and leads to a buildup of bacteria. They note that other drugs damage the teeth either through a similar mechanism or through a different process. Cocaine erodes enamel. Cannabis and many other drugs can cause dry mouth. Sometimes teeth are damaged because a drug causes someone to grind their teeth, vomit frequently, crave sweets or simply neglect dental care.
Some drugs promote hair loss. Steroids, for example, raise levels of dihydrotestosterone (DHT) which can contribute to baldness. Steroid use can also cause women to grow facial hair.
Drugs can also act on keratin, which is hair’s primary protein. A study of the hair of drug users found keratin-based damage in 97.2% of hair samples from cocaine users. Without adequate keratin, hair can become brittle and dull.
Drugs and alcohol can have profound effects on the heart and lead to premature heart disease. The effects are especially strong for women. A study on drug use effects on the body found that people who used amphetamine were nearly three times as likely as others to have early heart disease. Cocaine users had twice the risk, and users of cannabis and other drugs fell in the middle, with a risk 2.5 times higher than the general population. Even people who simply drink recreationally have a risk 50% higher than normal.
As with many substance abuse health effects, drugs and alcohol interact in an additive way. People who used four or more substances were nine times more likely than others to have premature heart disease.
Cognitive decline is part of the aging process for multiple reasons, including the loss of gray matter. An article on drug use effects on the brain reports that people dependent on cocaine lost twice as much gray matter in a year as others of similar age, gender and IQ.
The phenomenon is not unique to cocaine. Alcohol has also been shown to affect gray matter. The Guardian reports on research showing that higher alcohol consumption is associated with lower gray matter density. Drinking affects it four times as much as other factors like smoking or body weight. Drinking also harms the brain’s white matter.
Opioids are also on the list of drugs proven to affect thinking ability negatively. A study reported in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that people dependent on opioids had significantly less gray matter in important regions in the brain associated with cognitive processing.
Many addictive substances negatively affect the bones. This can lead to osteoporosis, a condition where they become brittle, fragile and more likely to break. Any substance that causes or contributes to nutritional imbalances can affect the whole body, including the bones.
There’s been a lot of research on the effect of alcohol on bone health. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism concludes that “Almost all epidemiological studies of alcohol use and human bone-health indicate that chronic heavy alcohol consumption, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood, can dramatically affect bone health and may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.”
A publication by the National Institutes of Health on alcoholism and osteoporosis
explains that alcohol interferes with the production and balance of key bone-health nutrients, like calcium and vitamin D. It may also cause hormone imbalances, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.
The effect of steroids on bone health is also widely understood. Steroid drugs increase the activity of cells that break down bone while decreasing the activity of the bone-building ones. American Bone Health notes that this combination can cause rapid skeletal changes. Often this happens within just a few months of beginning to use the drug.
Bone loss has also been demonstrated in people addicted to opioids. A study on opium addiction and bone loss found that over twice as many addicted than non-addicted subjects had a loss of bone in their spine.
Slowing or Reversing the Effects
Although none of us can stop the aging process, accelerated aging can be slowed. And some of the effects of drug and alcohol abuse can be reversed with abstinence and treatment. For example:
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported on a study finding that abnormal gray matter in some areas of the brains of people addicted to heroin returned to normal after a month of abstinence.
- A study of the effects of heroin use on bone health found that use of the drug was associated with reduced bone mass but that some of the alterations in bone metabolism seem to be reversible when drug use is stopped.
- An article on recovery from opioid or stimulant addiction reported that treatment could improve brain functioning, specifically in two important regions related to behavior and cognition.
The sooner you stop using drugs and alcohol, the sooner you can slow or reverse the accelerated aging process. If you’re trapped and unable to stop, we can help. We can provide a safe and caring environment where you can determine the physical and psychological factors keeping you stuck and learn to address them. You can take a different path.
Our number is 844.767.9965. Why not call today?