The stain of alcohol dependence on our health is far-reaching and difficult to wipe away, suggests a new study.

Researchers analyzed data from an earlier study of male Vietnam-era veterans. Out of the 664 people they looked at, all at least in their 60s, half had reported a history of alcohol dependence. Those who did were generally in poorer physical and mental health than those who didn’t, reaffirming reams of earlier research. But even the 75 people who had stopped abusing alcohol by their 30s were more likely to be unhealthy than those who never had any alcohol dependence, the researchers found.

Their findings were published Tuesday in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Specifically, people who had alcohol dependence in their early adulthood had an average of three medical conditions in the present day, compared to those without it. And their scores on a scale that measured depressive symptoms were twice as high. While the study is only observational in nature, lead author Dr. Randy Haber, a doctor at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System in California, offered some speculation as to how alcohol can leave lingering effects.

For one, chronic alcohol use can permanently hamper the areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and self-control, leading to poorer lifestyle choices down the road, he explained in a statement. Similarly, people who abused alcohol in their youth may still hold onto other unhealthy habits like smoking, or pick up new habits to deal with their recovery.  

Haber cautioned against being too pessimistic about his team’s findings, however. Not everyone with a history of alcohol dependence experienced poorer health, while other research has shown the numerous health benefits that come with treating dependence or adopting healthier lifestyle choices. And his findings shouldn’t deter anyone who’s worried about their alcohol use and wants to get better by cutting back, he added.

"If you have entered recovery, keep going," Haber said. "Live your life to its fullest."

Source: Residual Effects: Young Adult Diagnostic Drinking Predicts Late-life Health Outcomes. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2016.