Addiction directly affects 16% of Americans ages 12 and older, roughly 40 million people. To put that in perspective, 40 million people is more than the number of people with heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
The toll addiction is taking on Americans is continuing to increase with tragic consequences.
In most high-income countries throughout the world, life expectancy has been increasing, gradually but steadily, for decades. In 2015, life expectancy in the United States entered a period of sustained decline for the first time since the First World War and the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Addiction, particularly opioid overdoses, are a major factor for the decreased life expectancy in the US.
Drug and alcohol addiction manifests as a serious chronic medical condition, characterized by an intense desire to use alcohol or drugs, combined with an impaired ability to control these intense urges even in the face of well-known catastrophic consequences (incarceration, loss of child custody, loss of a professional license) and life threatening adverse health effects.
Addiction researchers have collected overwhelmingly convincing scientific evidence that shows frequent alcohol and drug misuse dramatically changes the brain structure and function in many ways. These changes are progressive and once developed, are long lasting and persistent even after years of alcohol or drug use discontinuation. These qualities make addiction a serious, chronic and relapsing brain disease, but also offer unique opportunities for effective treatment.
Drug and alcohol addiction is a serious chronic relapsing medical condition characterized by an intense desire to use alcohol or drugs combined with an impaired ability to control these intense urges even in the face of well-known catastrophic consequences.
One version of addiction states that addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. Prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic medical conditions.
A more scientific definition of addiction states that addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related neural circuitry. Dysfunction in these neural circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
Another definition characterizes addiction as the inability to consistently abstain from a substance or compulsive behaviors, resulting in 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.
The common line running through all these definitions is that addiction is a disease of isolation that fully consumes a person, leading them to spend the bulk of their time seeking or using drugs or alcohol to disastrous consequences in one’s personal life.
On a medical science level, addiction is caused by progressive structural and functional changes in the brain’s reward neuronal circuits, which results in profound behavioral disruptions. Changes in reasoning, logic, common sense, memory, emotion, and even motivation can occur.
These brain changes are progressive and once they develop can be long lasting and persistent even after years of drug use discontinuation.