A new study has found that 29 percent of U.S. adults will have alcohol use disorder at some point in their lives. Drinking alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., leading to 88,000 deaths per year. The new study shines a spotlight on how common drinking problems are in the U.S., putting the new classification of “alcohol use disorder” (as opposed to “alcohol abuse” or “alcohol dependence”) to work by looking at how many adults suffer from it and examining its associations with demographic factors and psychological conditions. As well as finding out how many adults suffer from the condition, the study also revealed that less than 20 percent of those with the condition received treatment.
Who’s Most at Risk?
The basic aim of the study was to determine the prevalence of and risk factors for alcohol use disorder, the new classification created in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-V). Where drinkers were previously classified as either having alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence (roughly translating to problem drinking and alcohol addiction, respectively), the new classification encompasses both of these issues and splits the diagnosis into mild, moderate and severe based on the number of criteria the individual fits. Anybody who fits at least two of the criteria is classed as having the condition, such as trying to cut down on drinking but failing, having problems at work or school because of drinking and having strong cravings for alcohol.
The research involved conducting face-to-face interviews with over 36,000 adults (aged 18 or over), which took place between 2012 and 2013. The researchers primarily looked to see how many had suffered from alcohol use disorder over the last year or at any point in their lifetimes, and looked for associations with demographic factors or with various psychological conditions.
Alcohol Use Disorder Common, Often Untreated
The results showed that 13.9 percent of respondents had suffered from alcohol use disorder in the last year, and 29.1 percent had at some point in their lives. This translates to 32.6 million adults suffering from the condition in the last 12 months, and around 68.2 million suffering from it at some point in their lives.
Men, Caucasians, Native Americans, younger adults, those who were previously married and those who’d never been married were at a higher risk, according to the study. For severe alcohol use disorder, those in the lowest income level were the most at risk—with a 1.8-fold increase in odds of having the condition in the last 12 months or a 1.5-fold increase in risk over their lifetimes. As you might expect, the researchers also found a link between alcohol use disorder and disability.
For psychological conditions, they found that those with alcohol use disorder either in their lifetimes or in the past year were more likely to abuse other substances and to suffer from major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. Weaker associations—but still significant ones—were observed for conditions such as panic disorder, specific phobia and generalized anxiety disorder.
Potentially the most troubling finding from the study is that, of those who’d ever suffered from alcohol use disorder, only 19.8 percent received treatment for the condition. The researchers conclude that people need to be educated about alcohol use disorder, the condition needs to be de-stigmatized and those in need should be encouraged to seek treatment.
Treatment Is a Public Health Priority
As well as making the various associations between heavy drinking and psychological health conditions clear, the research shows that encouraging those in need to seek treatment should be a public health priority. There are many reasons this isn’t happening, but the stigma surrounding addiction—to alcohol specifically, but really all addictions have this issue—is obviously a big factor: people are ashamed of seeking help. This isn’t easy to address, but maintaining an ongoing dialogue about and raising awareness of alcohol use disorder may help people realize it’s both a common and serious problem in the U.S.
The authors also identify the belief that treatment is ineffective as a potential cause for the low levels of treatment seen in this study. They point out that 12-step treatment has repeatedly been shown to be effective in helping people stop drinking and that brief screening and interventions by physicians can be effective for those whose problem hasn’t yet become severe. In addition, there are a wide range of medications and psychological approaches that help those trying to stop drinking. Clearly, another priority should be communicating this information more effectively: you can get effective support to help you stop drinking.
Make No Mistake, Alcohol Abuse Is a Big Problem
The biggest take-away message from this study is summed up by George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who says, “This study is shining a light on a serious problem that many Americans might not realize is there.” Despite alcohol’s legal status, it’s important to remember that it is an addictive and dangerous drug, and as a society, we need to start taking the issues of heavy drinking and alcoholism much more seriously.