Alcohol dependence; Alcohol abuse
About 90% of adults in the U.S. drink alcohol. Every day, more than 700,000 Americans are being treated for alcoholism. In addition, up to half of American men have problems that are caused by alcohol.
Some researchers have categorized people with alcoholism as Type 1 or Type 2.
Not only do these two groups tend to respond differently to psychotherapeutic approaches, but they may also respond differently to medications.
Drinking in Adolescence. About half of under-age Americans have used alcohol. About 2 million people ages 12 - 20 are considered heavy drinkers, and 4.4 million are binge drinkers. Anyone who begins drinking in adolescence is at risk for developing alcoholism. The earlier a person begins drinking, the greater the risk. A survey of over 40,000 adults indicated that among those who began drinking before age 14, nearly half had become alcoholic dependent by the age of 21. In contrast, only 9% of people who began drinking after the age of 21 developed alcoholism.
Young people at highest risk for early drinking are those with a history of abuse, family violence, depression, and stressful life events. People with a family history of alcoholism are also more likely to begin drinking before the age of 20 and to become alcoholic. Such adolescent drinkers are also more apt to underestimate the effects of drinking and to make judgment errors, such as going on binges or driving after drinking, than young drinkers without a family history of alcoholism.
Drinking in the Elderly Population. Although alcoholism usually develops in early adulthood, the elderly are not exempt. In fact, doctors may overlook alcoholism when evaluating elderly patients, mistakenly attributing the signs of alcohol abuse to the normal effects of the aging process.
Alcohol also affects the older body differently. People who maintain the same drinking patterns as they age can easily develop alcohol dependency without realizing it. It takes fewer drinks to become intoxicated, and older organs can be damaged by smaller amounts of alcohol than those of younger people. Also, up to one-half of the 100 most prescribed drugs for older people react adversely with alcohol. Medications used for arthritis or pain pose a particular danger for interaction with alcohol.
Most alcoholics are men, but the incidence of alcoholism in women has been increasing over the past 30 years. Studies indicate that about 7% of men and 2.5% of women abuse alcohol. However, studies suggest that women are more vulnerable than men to many of the long-term consequences of alcoholism. For example, women are more likely than men to develop alcoholic hepatitis and to die from cirrhosis, and women are more vulnerable to the brain cell damage caused by alcohol.
Individuals who were abused as children have a higher risk for substance abuse later on. In one study, 72% of women and 27% of men with substance abuse disorders reported physical or sexual abuse or both. They also had worse response to treatment than those without such a history.
Overall, there is no difference in alcoholic prevalence among African-Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanic-Americans. Some population groups, however, such as Native Americans, have an increased incidence of alcoholism while others, such as Jewish and Asian Americans, have a lower risk. Although the biological or cultural causes of such different risks are not known, certain people in these population groups may have a genetic susceptibility or invulnerability to alcoholism because of the way they metabolize alcohol.
Psychiatric Disorders. Severely depressed or anxious people are at high risk for alcoholism, smoking, and other forms of addiction. Likewise, a large proportion of alcohol-dependent people suffer from an accompanying psychiatric or substance abuse disorder. Either anxiety or depression may increase the risk for self-medication with alcohol. Depression is the most common psychiatric problem in people with alcoholism or substance abuse. Alcohol abuse is very common in patients with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Specific anxiety disorders, such as panic disorders and social phobia, may pose particular risks for alcohol and substance abuse. Social phobia causes an intense fear of being publicly scrutinized and humiliated. Panic disorders cause intense anxiety and panic attacks. People with these disorders may use alcohol as a way to become less inhibited in public situations or to calm feelings of panic. While anxiety disorders are found in about 15% of adults overall, over 50% of people with alcohol abuse problems suffer from these conditions. People who have anxiety disorders are more likely to resume drinking after treatment for alcohol dependence. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #28: Anxiety.]
Long-term alcoholism itself may cause chemical changes that produce anxiety and depression. In fact, a study on elderly people with depression reported that when even moderate drinkers reduced consumption, their mood improved. Studies also indicate that alcohol use may promote panic attacks. It is not always clear, then, whether people with emotional disorders are self-medicating with alcohol, or whether alcohol itself is producing mood swings.
Behavioral Disorders and Lack of Impulse Control. Studies are also finding that alcoholism is strongly related to impulsive, excitable, and novelty-seeking behavior, and such patterns are established early on. Children who later become alcoholics or who abuse drugs are more likely to have less fear of new situations than others, even if there is a greater risk for harm than in nonalcoholics. Specifically, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that shares these behaviors, have a higher risk for alcoholism in adulthood. The risk is especially high in children with ADHD and conduct disorder.
Alcoholism is not restricted to any specific socioeconomic group or class.
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