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Alcohol is the Third Leading Preventable Cause of Death in the United States

By August 16, 2018No Comments

The Quiet Rise in Alcohol Addiction

While the ongoing opioid crisis continues to garner headlines and high-profile debates regarding marijuana legalization rage across the country, alcohol abuse continues to fly under the radar and out of most people’s sphere of concern. However, in addition to being the most commonly treated substance of abuse, alcohol is also the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States after tobacco and poor diet/physical activity.

In fact, according to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry, more Americans are drinking alcohol, and a growing number of them are drinking to a point that’s dangerous or harmful. The increases were seen between the years 2001-2002 to 2012-2013 in a number of demographics. The greatest increases in alcohol use were in women, minorities, older adults, and people of lower socioeconomic status.

The Dangers of Alcohol Abuse

Short-Term Health Risks

Excessive alcohol use has immediate effects that increase the risk of many harmful health conditions. These are most often the result of binge drinking and include the following:

  • Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns.
  • Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.
  • Alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency that results from high blood alcohol levels.
  • Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can result in unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women.
  • Blackouts that include total or partial memory loss, usually caused by alcohol toxicity in the brain’s memory center.

Long-Term Health Risks

Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
  • Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.
  • Mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders.
  • Social problems, including lost productivity, family problems, legal charges and unemployment.
  • Alcohol dependence or alcoholism – now called Alcohol Use Disorder.

Alcohol and Women – A Dangerous Cocktail

As harmful as excessive drinking is for the average person, women are at an even greater risk. Research shows that problems associated with drinking – especially the impact on health – can be especially pronounced in women. Women are more likely than men to harm their health with long-term drinking, even if they drink less alcohol for a shorter period of time.

The physical composition of the female body makes it more difficult for women to process and eliminate alcohol compared to men. The main reasons behind this are disparity in size and water makeup. Due to their increased size and body mass, men have more water mass in their bodies than women, even when compared to women of the same height and weight. This means that women will achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood, even when drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol.

Another reason is body chemistry. There are two hormonal enzymes necessary to break down alcohol in the body: dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. Women produce smaller amounts of these hormones than men, which means that their bodies absorb higher amounts of alcohol faster – women absorb 50% more alcohol per drink than men. This is why a woman might feel drunk after one or two drinks, while her male friends can drink three or four of the same with no outward side effects.

In addition, research suggests that women who drink heavily are at a higher risk than men for alcohol-induced injury and accidental death, and women who drink heavily are also more likely to become victims of interpersonal violence and sexual assault than women who do not drink.

Alcoholism is Still the Most Common Addiction

According to recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), alcohol addiction is the number one (approx. 23%) reported cause of admission to treatment programs, with the combination of alcohol plus another drug in close second (approx. 18%). Marijuana and heroin make up the bulk of the remainder (approx. 17 and 14% respectively), with substances such as crack cocaine, stimulants and other drugs rounding out the list.

Admissions data from Enterhealth also confirms that alcohol is still the number one substance people are seeking treatment for in both its residential facility and outpatient center. The average age of people seeking treatment for alcohol addiction is typically divided into two sets: young adults and older adults. The average age of younger adults in treatment is 25-30. For older adults, the average age is 50-63 years old.

Why is Alcohol Addiction So Common?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an estimated 16 million (approx. 6%) people in the United States have Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). AUD is classified as a chronic brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using alcohol.

There are three major factors that make alcohol one of the most abused substances in world:

  1. Age of onset – Research indicates using alcohol as a teenager can interfere with normal adolescent brain development and increase the risk of developing alcohol and drug addictions later in life. In addition, underage drinking contributes to a range of consequences, including injury, physical and sexual assault, legal problems and even death.
  2. Availability – The availability of alcohol is obvious. It is omnipresent at almost every kind of social gathering, used for celebrations, commiserations, religious ceremonies and more. It can be easily purchased and is relatively inexpensive. While age restrictions on alcohol are well-intended and go a long way toward preventing children and young adults from gaining access to it, all too often it can be taken from a parent’s refrigerator or liquor cabinet.
  3. Societal acceptance – Societal acceptance is the most difficult aspect of alcohol consumption to correct, as alcohol has been a part of human society for literally thousands of years. Attempts at regulation and making alcohol illegal have met with failure a number of times (think prohibition). The best thing that we can do is work to educate people (especially young people) about the dangers of short and long-term alcohol abuse and encourage those already suffering from alcoholism to seek help.

How Enterhealth Treats Alcohol Addiction

At Enterhealth Ranch and the Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence, our teams of experienced physicians and therapists work together with each patient to thoroughly assess their situation and develop a unique treatment plan for that person. Enterhealth’s evidence-based approach has been shown to have a higher rate of success treating drug and alcohol addiction than traditional methods.

One of the many effective, science-based tools that we use to treat alcoholism is Vivitrol, a monthly injection which decreases alcohol cravings up to 90% and prevents an alcoholic from feeling drunk or high when they do drink alcohol. Click here to learn more about the benefits of Vivitrol when used as part of a comprehensive treatment program at Enterhealth.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) classifies addiction as a chronic medical disease of the brain, and while it can be controlled, it’s important to recognize that it cannot be cured, at least not at this point. Facing alcohol abuse and addiction head on takes an enormous amount of courage and strength, so reaching out for help is a critical step towards getting your life back on track.

If you or your loved one is concerned that you might have a drinking problem, the first step to answering that question is to seek an expert’s advice in the field of addiction.

Written by Harold C. Urschel III, MD, MMA, Enterhealth Chief Medical Strategist


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