Is Alcoholism a Chronic Disease?

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Alcoholism (now called alcohol use disorder) affects a staggering number of Americans. According to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2022), 29.5 million adults aged 12 and older struggle with this condition. However, not many people understand the addictive nature of alcohol, what constitutes alcohol abuse, and many wonder if alcoholism is a chronic disease. This blog explores those key topics and more.

What is chronic alcohol abuse?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol use is common, with 84.1 percent of adults aged 18 or over reporting they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime — that equates to 215.6 million Americans! But what exactly defines chronic alcohol use? To understand this we need to first define problematic drinking.

Chronic alcohol abuse use falls into the following categories:

  • Alcohol misuse: drinking in a way that can cause harm
  • Binge drinking: drinking in a pattern that results in a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter. Typically, that involves four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men, over a two-hour period
  • Heavy alcohol use (or heavy drinking): SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on five or more days over the past 30 days. It is defined by NIAAA as five or more drinks in a day, or more than 15 drinks per week for men, and four or more drinks a day, or eight or more drinks per week for women. 
  • High intensity drinking: twice (or more) the thresholds for binge drinking. For example, 10 or more drinks for men or eight or more for females.
  • Alcohol use disorder: drinking in a pattern in which the person struggles to moderate drinking, experiences problems because of their drinking, increased risk taking, poor health due to drinking, and legal and/or relational challenges due to drinking. 

Risk factors for alcohol use disorder

According to experts, binge drinking and heavy alcohol use may increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Other risk factors include:

  • Drinking at an early age (before the age of 15)
  • Genetics and family history of alcohol misuse
  • Mental health conditions, like depression, ADHD, and trauma (PTSD). These risks are associated with an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorder

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Side effects of chronic alcohol abuse

Alcohol is a leading cause of death, a carcinogen, and its chronic effects cause over 5 million emergency department visits and more than 140,000 deaths each year, according to NIAAA. The whole body is impacted by chronic alcohol use and according to the World Health Organization, no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health

There are many physical and mental health side effects associated with chronic alcohol abuse, including:

  • Liver disease, killing 47,248 Americans in 2021
  • Cancer, with 5.6 percent of cancer deaths attributable to alcohol
  • Increased risks of heart disease, depression, stomach bleeding, stroke, and difficulty managing chronic conditions, like diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, pain
  • Higher risk of drowning, injuries from violence, motor vehicle incidents, and falls.

Key statistics about alcohol use disorder

The nation’s data on drug and alcohol use, called the National Survey on Drug and Alcohol Use, reports key information each year. The latest survey, from 2022, highlights the following statistics about alcohol use disorder:

  • 29.5 million Americans aged 12 and older had alcohol use disorder, split between the following genders:
    • 17.4 million males
    • 12.2 females
  • Among racial groups, alcohol use disorder affected the following individuals:
    • 154,000 American Indian or Alaskan Native people
    • 958,000 Asian people
    • 3.6 million Black people
    • 18.6 million White people
    • 5.5 million Hispanic or Latino people
    • 609,000 people of two or more races
  • In the age group 12 to 17, alcohol use disorder affects 753,000 adolescents:
    • 281,000 males
    • 472,000 females

Is alcoholism a chronic disease?

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic condition impacting 10 percent of the population. It is a defined medical condition and because of its ability to impair an individual’s ability to stop drinking, despite adverse social, work, and health consequences, it is classified as a chronic condition. 

Alcoholism is also considered a brain disorder as it impacts parts of the brain linked to reward, stress, and self-control. Even when a person stops drinking the effects on the brain can last for a long time. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, like other chronic health diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, it impacts the healthy functioning of organs. However, like these conditions, alcohol use disorder is also preventable and treated. But, if left untreated it can lead to illness and death.  

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-948-8417 Who Answers? today to learn about your treatment options.

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