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What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a potentially life-threatening condition that is marked by a compulsion to consume alcohol, regardless of the consequences. Alcoholic individuals can become both physically and psychologically dependent upon alcohol, and exhibit an inability to control the amount and frequency of their drinking.

In the August 26, 1992, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, an article by R.M. Morse and D.K. Flavin of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reported that a two-year study by a 23-member multidisciplinary team resulted in the following definition for alcoholism:

Alcoholism can be defined as a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be continuous or periodic.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has identified the following four symptoms as the primary signs of alcoholism:

  • Craving – Feeling a compulsion, or continued urge, to drink.
  • Loss of control – An inability to refrain from drinking, or to stop once one has begun to consume alcohol.
  • Physical dependence – Experiencing withdrawal symptoms (for example, nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety) in the absence of alcohol.
  • Tolerance – The need to consume increasingly larger amounts of alcohol to get a “high” that is similar to what was previously experienced with less drinking. 

The Prevalence of the Problem

Throughout history, people have incorporated alcohol consumption into healthy lives – and most adults today are able to drink in moderation (commonly defined as two drinks per day for men and one daily drink for women) without experiencing negative health effects.

However, a significant amount of people have regularly abused alcohol or exhibited symptoms of alcoholism. The NIAAA has reported that as many as 14 million Americans – or about one of every 13 adults in the United States – fit this description, with millions of others engaging in behaviors that can be described as precursors to the development of an alcohol-related problem:

  • According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a component of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 60 percent of U.S. adults report having consumed alcohol at least once in the previous year. Among those who drank, 33 percent said they had at least five drinks during one day.
  • The Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog organization, has described alcohol as “by far the most used and abused drug among America’s teenagers,” and reports on its website that slightly more than three out of 10 high school students have reported drinking more than five drinks in one setting during the previous 30 days.
  • The American Psychiatric Association has reported that about 10 million U.S. adults and 3 million children (under the age of 18) fit the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism.

Number of alcohol-induced deaths, excluding accidents and homicides: 21,634 (2005)
Number of alcoholic liver disease deaths: 12,928 (2005)

The Consequences of Alcoholism

The misuse and abuse of alcohol can lead to a wide range of personal, social, developmental, and professional problems.

In terms of health effects alone, alcohol can inflict significant damage, up to and including death. Heavy drinking has been associated with, among other conditions, brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, impairments to the immune system, and the development of certain types of cancers (including those of the esophagus, larynx, liver, and throat).

Driving under the influence of alcohol also continues to be a serious problem. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that in 2006 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), 39 percent of all traffic-related deaths (16,885 fatalities) were the result of alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes.

The Marin Institute estimates that health care expenditures for alcohol-related problems in the United States are more than $22 billion every year, and that the children of alcoholic-addicted parents who are admitted to the hospital average 62 percent more hospital days than do the children of parents who don’t abuse alcohol or other drugs.

Overcoming the Disorder

Alcohol dependence is much more than a personal weakness or a symptom of a deficient willpower – it is a very real disease that, with proper professional intervention, can be treated.

Depending upon the degree to which a person is dependent upon alcohol, treatment may consist of participation in a support group (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), outpatient therapy, hospitalization, a stay in a residential treatment facility, or a combination thereof.

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