Facts about Alcoholism

Alcohol use and abuse is associated with serious medical illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular problems, liver cirrhosis, stroke, hypertension, and brain damage. There is also extensive evidence indicating that alcohol dependence elevates the risk for depression as well as all types of anxiety and personality disorders.

Recent Facts About Alcohol
  • Nearly 14 million people in the United States--1 in every 13 adults--abuse alcohol or are alcoholic.
  • Every day, more than 700,000 people in the U.S. receive treatment for alcoholism.
  • 40% of children who start drinking before the age of 15 will become alcoholics at some point in their lives, compared with 25% for those who begin drinking at age 17, and about 10% for those who begin drinking at ages 21 and 22.
  • 76 million Americans, about 43% of the U.S. adult population, have been exposed to alcoholism in the family.
  • 22% of American adults are former drinkers.
  • Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
What is meant by "alcoholism"?

Alcoholism, also known as "alcohol dependence," is a disease that includes alcohol craving and continued drinking despite repeated alcohol-related problems, such as losing a job or getting into trouble with the law. Alcoholism is likely when an individual experiences at least 3 of the following symptoms during any 12-month period:

  • Tolerance (increasing amounts of alcohol are required to achieve a desired effect); withdrawal symptoms (such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety); drinking larger amounts over a longer period of time than intended.
  • A persistent desire to drink, or unsuccessful efforts to control drinking.
  • Giving up or reducing important social, occupational or recreational activities in favor of drinking.
  • Spending a great deal of time obtaining alcohol, drinking or recovering from drinking.
  • Continued drinking despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurring physical or psychological problem either caused or exacerbated by drinking.
Is alcoholism a disease?

Yes. Alcoholism is a chronic, often progressive disease, and, like many other diseases, it has a generally predictable course, recognized symptoms, and is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors that are being increasingly defined.

Is alcoholism inherited?

Alcoholism tends to run in families and genetic factors partially explain this pattern. Currently, researchers are on the way to finding the genes that influence vulnerability to alcoholism. A person's environment, such as the influence of friends, stress levels, and the ease of obtaining alcohol, also may influence drinking and the development of alcoholism. Still other factors, such as social support, may help to protect even high-risk people from alcohol problems.

Risk, however, is not destiny. A child of an alcoholic parent will not automatically develop alcoholism—and a person with no family history of alcoholism can become alcohol dependent.

Can alcoholism be cured?

Not yet. Alcoholism is a treatable disease through treatment plans of therapy, medication, or a combination of both, but a cure has not yet been found. This means that if an alcoholic has been sober for a long time and has regained health, he or she may relapse and so must continue to avoid all alcoholic beverages and ensure professional mental health care help is always readily available to provide any necessary professional support.

Does alcohol treatment work?

Treatment outcomes for alcoholism compare favorably with outcomes for many other chronic medical conditions. The longer an individual abstains from alcohol, the more likely they are to remain sober. Ongoing support from mental health professionals, family members and others are extremely significant to recovery. It is important to remember that many people relapse once or even several times before achieving long-term sobriety. Relapses are common and do not mean that a person has failed or cannot eventually recover from alcoholism. If a relapse occurs, it is crucial to once again stop drinking and to get whatever professional help is needed to continue abstaining from alcohol.

Does a person have to be alcoholic to experience problems from alcohol?

No. Even if you are not alcoholic, abusing alcohol can have negative results. Alcohol abuse is likely if an individual exhibits at least one of the following traits:

  • Continued use despite social or interpersonal problems by drinking.
  • Recurrent drinking when alcohol use is physically hazardous.
  • Recurrent drinking resulting in a failure to fulfill major obligations at work, school or home.
  • Recurrent alcohol-related legal problems.
  • Under some circumstances, serious problems can result from even moderate drinking, for example, when driving, during pregnancy, or when taking certain medications.
If I have trouble with drinking, can't I simply reduce my alcohol use without stopping altogether?

It depends. If you are diagnosed as an alcoholic, the answer is "no." Studies show that nearly all alcoholics who try to merely cut down on drinking are unable to do so indefinitely. Instead, receiving the necessary professional support for cutting out alcohol (that is, abstaining) is nearly always necessary for successful recovery. And anyone--moderate drinkers included--who finds it difficult to stay within their drinking limit should consider seeking professional care before what seems like a small problem becomes a serious one.

What is a safe level of drinking?

Most adults can drink moderate amounts of alcohol — up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people (one drink equals one 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits).

However, certain individuals should not drink at all. They include:

  • Recovering alcoholics.
  • Anyone suffering with a psychological condition, just a few examples of which are extreme distress, depression, anxiety disorders or personality disorders.
  • People who plan to drive or engage in other activities requiring alertness and skill.
  • People taking certain medications, including some over-the-counter medications.
  • People with medical conditions that can be worsened by drinking.
  • Any woman who is pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant.
Why is it unsafe to drink during pregnancy?

Drinking during pregnancy can cause a number of seriously harmful pre-natal effects to the child, as early as during the first several weeks of pregnancy and continuing until childbirth. Risks to the child include mental retardation, organ abnormalities, hyperactivity, and eventual learning and behavioral problems. While it is not yet known how much alcohol is required to cause these problems, it is known that they are 100% preventable if a woman does not drink at all during pregnancy.

As people get older, does alcohol affect their bodies differently?

Yes. As a person ages, certain mental and physical functions tend to decline, including vision, hearing, and reaction time. It is also true that other physical changes associated with aging can make older people feel "high" after drinking fairly small amounts of alcohol. These combined factors make older people more likely to have alcohol-related falls, automobile crashes, and other kinds of accidents.

In addition, older people tend to take more medications than younger persons, and missing alcohol with many over-the-counter and prescription drugs can be dangerous (even fatal), and many medical conditions common to older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers, can be worsened by drinking.

Does alcohol affect a woman's body differently from a man's body?

Yes. Most women become more intoxicated than men after drinking the same amount of alcohol, even when differences in body weight are taken into account. This is because women's bodies typically have proportionately less water than men's bodies and, because alcohol mixes with body water, a given amount of alcohol becomes more highly concentrated in a woman's body than in a man's.

In addition, chronic alcohol abuse takes a heavier physical toll on women than on men and alcohol dependence and related medical problems, such as brain and liver damage, progress more rapidly in women than men.

If I am taking over-the-counter or prescription medication, do I have to stop drinking?

Possibly. More than 100 medications interact with alcohol, leading to increased risk of illness, injury and, in some cases, death. The effects of alcohol are increased by medicines that slow down the central nervous system, such as sleeping pills, antihistamines, antidepressants, anti anxiety drugs, and some painkillers. In addition, medicines for certain disorders, including diabetes and heart disease, can be dangerous if used with alcohol. To be on the safe side, always ask your prescribing physician whether it is advisable to drink alcohol while taking any medication.