How Is Addiction Considered a Disease?

Most would agree that America has a chronic and pervasive problem when it comes to substance abuse.  And this is not the opinion of a select few but rather a truism substantiated by multiple studies.  One study, in particular, published by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), revealed that nearly 20 million people in America admitted to battling an addiction of some kind in 2017.  It is also worth noting that some of the same individuals who admitted to struggling with addiction were as young as 12.  And the alarming statistics do not end there.  Available data shows that between 1999 and 2017, America bore witness to more than 700,000 overdose-related deaths.  Indeed, there is no denying that America’s problem with addiction has reached epidemic proportions, but there is still some debate concerning whether or not addiction is a disease.

Commonly Abused Drugs in America

Before weighing in on whether or not addiction is, in fact, a disease, let’s take a moment to shine a light on the most commonly abused drugs in this country.  Aside from nicotine, studies show that many Americans have a problem with the following substances:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Opioids
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Inhalants

Regardless of which of these drugs an individual considers their drug of choice, the compulsion to get and use them, despite obvious undesirable or dangerous consequences, constitutes an addiction.  But what makes such a compulsion a disease is not as clearly defined.  After all, for some people, gambling and having sex are addictive, but neither are thought of, let alone characterized, as a disease. And this is partly because these behaviors are not as damaging to the physical body as consuming alcohol, opioids, marijuana, and other illicit substances.

Addiction and the Physical Body

For those not aware, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the National Institutes of Health collectively refer to the compulsive and long-term use of illicit substances as a disease.  And this is primarily due to how these substances affect the brain and body.  For instance, it is not uncommon for individuals with an alcohol use disorder to experience the following in terms of brain function and overall brain health:

  • Direct damage, injury, and even death of brain cells
  • Changes in brain chemistry, particularly involving neurotransmitters and hormones
  • A decline in the flow of oxygen and nutrients needed by brain tissue

As far as the physical body is concerned, individuals with an alcohol use disorder are more likely to develop a thiamine deficiency.  For those not aware, thiamine is a type of B vitamin that supports the health and function of the heart, liver, and other tissues in the body.  When we consume whole grains, meats, fish, and the like, the body absorbs this vitamin, but heavy drinking interferes with this absorption process. And when this happens, the heart, liver, and other organs begin to function less than optimally. While the focus has been mainly on alcohol use disorders, it is worth noting that these and other maladies are also par for the course when abusing opioids, benzodiazepines, and other hard drugs.

Parallels Between Addiction and Heart Disease

According to most physicians and addiction experts, multiple parallels exist between substance abuse and heart disease.  And these parallels  are as follows:

  • Addiction and heart disease interfere with the regular functioning of bodily organs.
  • Addiction and heart disease can both result in a lower life expectancy and can even trigger premature death.
  • Addiction and heart disease are both treatable.  Of course, the earlier treatments can start, the better the outcome.
  • Making positive lifestyle choices can minimize the risk of being diagnosed with heart disease or developing an addiction.

Why Some People Still Believe Addiction Is a Matter of Choice Rather Than a Disease

Although the general consensus is that addiction is a disease, this opinion is not shared by all.  Some individuals support the notion that addiction is a choice, with most pointing to the fact that substance abuse disorders are not contagious or transmissible in explaining their rationale.  Many have also pointed to the fact that addiction to illicit substances is self-acquired to justify their reasoning.

Bottom Line

In summary, there will always be some debate concerning whether or not addiction should be considered a disease.  However, the one thing that most agree on is that addiction can trigger numerous health problems.  Most also agree that those who have become dependent upon any substance should seek help from a licensed rehab facility as soon as possible. To learn more about anything discussed in this article or for help finding a quality rehab facility in your area, consider speaking with one of our associates today at 833-820-2922.