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Is addiction a disease? Research says yes!

May 13, 2014

Addiction recovery can be a difficult task without any other obstacles in the way of people seeking help for substance abuse issues. Taking the first step to give up on a past history of drug and alcohol addiction often takes a tremendous amount of willpower as well as support from family, friends and loved ones. Even after completing a treatment program, former substance abusers must remain committed to their sobriety despite what troubles in their lives might push them to relapse.

One such struggle facing many people who have battled addiction is a public stigma against the condition itself. According to some, addiction is not a condition, but a choice made by the individual. These detractors may claim that a moral deficiency or lack of self-control leads people to succumb to drugs and alcohol more easily than others, and that treatment should not be extended to those who actively choose destructive habits.

However, experts across the medical and addiction treatment communities agree that addiction is a verifiable disease that can result in observable changes within the body, and this is what sets addiction apart from dependence or habit-formation. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations[…] Characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.” Though the public image of substance abuse may have taken this form in prior decades, modern research has placed great weight behind the fact that addiction is a disease, and those with it should be treated accordingly.

How is addiction a disease?

Though addiction science has advanced to the point where those with the condition can receive effective and accurate treatment, Psychology Today magazine explained that this was not always the case. Those who exhibited addictive behaviors were shunned as being somehow deficient in the qualities that other upstanding members of society possessed, and it was these attributes rather than medical assistance that substance abusers required to shake their habits.

Public perception began to shift in the mid-1980s, though, and with it came increased tolerance for drug and alcohol issues. In part, this was due to greater research into the brains of those with addictive behaviors. The National Institutes of Health explained that advances in magnetic resonance imaging equipment, which allowed researchers to study the chemical workings of peoples’ brains in real-time, prompted more interest in addiction studies.

These studies found that substance abuse, especially when hard drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin are involved, may significantly alter the normal workings of the brain. Drugs trigger the release of large amounts of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical compound that regulates emotions of pleasure and happiness. The body grows used to higher amounts of this compound, though, which means that drug users need larger doses in order to achieve the same effect. Over time, the body loses its ability to respond to dopamine, which can severely affect the disposition of affected individuals.

Genetics play a role

Much like heart disease, vision issues and male pattern baldness, the disease of addiction has a genetic component, too. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explained that several factors may combine to make somebody more susceptible to drug addiction, but a genetic predisposition to the condition may be one of the most important.

If a parent or relative has exhibited signs of addictive behavior in the past, individuals in that family may be more likely to develop a dependence on drugs or alcohol. This does not mean that people will be somehow drawn toward substance abuse, but if exposed, they may have a more difficult time controlling themselves around those addictive substances. explained that while there is no easy reason to explain why some people become addicted to substances while others do not, genetics and other co-occurring conditions most certainly play a part. Anyone who suspects that he or she may be at a higher predisposition for problematic drug or alcohol use should monitor his or her activities because addiction is a real disease with equally serious consequences.

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