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Is Addiction a Disease? Understanding the Roots of Substance Use

Posted on June 7, 2021

If someone asked you to name the first few diseases you can think of, you’d probably mention the most familiar ones. Heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s may be on your shortlist. If given a second chance to add more types, would addiction even come to mind? If not, it’s a good starting point for a conversation today about what qualifies as a disease and why substance use disorders (SUDs) may get overlooked.

For years, researchers have known that addiction is a brain disease. Nearly a decade ago, the American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM), redefined it as a chronic brain disease. What qualifies addiction to be considered a brain disease comes from the changes made to areas such as the frontal cortex by drinking or drug use. These changes can make becoming and staying sober more challenging for people who are already dependent. Treatment, care, and research of brain disease from addiction is a vital part of raising awareness of its impact on teens, young adults, and older adults.

Is addiction a disease?

This question may confuse some people who view disease as a biological process only. For them, it’s not connected to voluntary human behaviors, such as drinking or misusing drugs. But, the truth is, addiction is actually a disease of the brain. Substance use at any age can lead to brain disease. Adolescents who start drinking or doing drugs are especially vulnerable. Brain-related issues can become more severe when substance misuse starts earlier in life.

For years, research has looked at the impact of alcohol’s connection to neurological diseases. Studies look at how consumption of alcohol affects and damages the brain. They also look at how damage to the brain can progressively worsen over time. Changes to the brain and nervous system ultimately affect other parts of the body, making a brain disease something that can’t be reversed simply by becoming sober.

What makes addiction a disease?

What makes addiction a disease is its ability to change a person’s thinking, feelings, and perception by affecting the brain. Neurologists can look at the changes to the brain, especially the frontal cortex, of a person with a substance use disorder. What they can see is damage to a part of the brain that supports reasoning and resisting unhealthy behaviors. By altering the brain, this form of disease can make it more difficult for adults to resist drug use once they’re dependent.

Looking at some of the side effects of substance use disorders also can reveal signs of a neurological disease. They can include blackouts, dehydration, loss of coordination, memory loss, and seizures. Physical changes from addiction can come from loss of tissue mass and a deadening of nerves throughout the nervous system.

Who declared addiction a disease?

In 1956, the American Medical Association declared alcoholism an illness, and in 1987, the AMA officially recognized addiction a disease. A 2016 report from former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., confirmed it is a chronic illness that’s accompanied by significant changes in the brain. It came as no surprise to researchers in the field who came to the same conclusion earlier. Medical and scientific organizations agree, too. One of them, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, gives a definition of “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Another one, American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM), redefined addiction as a chronic brain disease four years before the 2016 report.

Origins Philosophy

We believe it’s essential to see substance use disorders as a disease on the same level as any other disease. The response to it must involve adequate research, accessible treatment, and proper care. This perspective can help individuals and families better understand how addiction affects a person’s brain and their behaviors. Raising this kind of awareness goes beyond an individual program or facility. It’s about changing the conversation people have about substance use to a productive dialogue about how we can improve the lives of people with addictions and sustain recovery, without judgment.

Origins Behavioral Healthcare is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 844-843-8935.