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What is Alcoholism?

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Alcoholism is a primary chronic disease of the brain that results in social, physical and psychological consequences. The inability to stop drinking alcoholic beverages even in the face of negative consequences is a clear sign that one may have a problem and need treatment.

Several types of alcoholism are found in the Baby Boomer and Older Adult populations. Two types of these examples reference the period in life when the individual began drinking. Early-onset alcoholics have been drinking for much of their lives and represent two-thirds of older alcoholics. The remaining are late-onset alcoholics who began drinking heavily later in life, often after the loss of a spouse or retirement.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5®) is used by professionals to diagnose alcoholism and defines an alcohol use disorder as a “problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.” The DSM-5® states that this disorder is manifested by at least two of the following behaviors:

  1. Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended
  2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use
  3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol or recover from its effects
  4. Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol
  5. Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home
  6. Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
  8. Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  9. Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
  10. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
  11. A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect
  12. A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol
  13. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
  14. The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol (refer to Criteria A and B of the criteria set for alcohol withdrawal, pages 235-236).
  15. Alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, as a disease that causes physical symptoms such as:

  • Cravings
  • Loss of control
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Increased tolerance

Alcohol affects every organ in the body. The most commonly known related disease is cirrhosis of the liver, but there are many other adverse medical effects of alcohol use including:

  • Heart problems
  • Stroke
  • Pancreatitis
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and breast
  • Malnutrition
  • High blood pressure
  • Cognition problems
  • Moodiness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia or other sleep disorder
  • Uncontrolled anger

Poor nutrition as it relates to alcohol abuse is of particular concern as increasing numbers of older individuals report getting their daily calories from unhealthy sources. According to the average diet scores for the population of older adults age 65 and over, many members of this generation note that alcohol is a part of their regular diet.

Many Baby Boomers and Older Adults have been high-functioning alcoholics for years, maintaining their jobs and other responsibilities despite regular alcohol consumption. Yet alcoholism is a progressive disease that will take a toll on the entire body. Cognitive loss also is possible, and relationships suffer in the chronic disease of alcoholism. Families fall apart or become dysfunctional.

Women, due to differences in their rates of metabolism also are generally more apt to become addicted to alcohol sooner and are twice as likely to die from alcoholism. Both genders are undertreated for alcoholism, even though a higher percentage of men are diagnosed as alcoholics.

Stopping the use of alcohol is not necessarily enough to improve the quality of one’s life because long term sobriety often requires additional support. Awareness of late-onset alcohol addiction is important for all family members and those who care for older adults, especially during life transitions, when risky behaviors may become embedded into everyday life.

Clients at times suffer from a co-occurring mental or physical condition that requires treatment. Origins Behavioral HealthCare specializes in the treatment of conditions such as chronic pain and early dementia among others. Treatment is marked by achievements in physical, emotional and spiritual balance as clients build and renew energy, relationships and purpose.

Many Baby Boomers and Older adults who arrive for treatment for alcoholism present with comorbid psychological/psychiatric issues that often include self-medicating practices or drug induced mental health challenges. Dual diagnosis refers to the presence of another mental disorder with addiction. Recovery is not likely to be successful if the mental disorder is not treated at the same time as the addiction. Interactions between alcohol and drugs and the other mental illness can make either condition worse.

Addicts are twice as likely than the general population to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, and the reverse is also true. Sometimes it is not known whether the alcohol abuse or the mental disorder was a factor in the second disorder. Remember that addiction is also a neurobiological disease. Both genetic and environmental factors can come into play with co-occurring mental disorders. Co-occurring mental disorders with addiction include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and various additional personality disorders.

Age-specific treatment works. Older Adults tend to relate the words alcoholism and addiction to a moral failing, so age sensitivity and awareness of generational values, including respect for peers, is very important in addressing the subject. It is important to know that older people do well in age-specific treatment programs.

A holistic approach to treatment addressing all aspects of the person using the 12-Step model can change perceptions and bring new purpose into the lives of both the client receiving treatment for alcoholism and their family members. By connecting with a deeper sense of meaning individuals are able to positively impact the lives of others as they work toward permanent recovery. The 12-Step philosophy is a vital part of the journey toward real recovery.

If you or a loved one is exhibiting signs of alcohol addiction, please contact us at any time to receive more information: 1-844-U-GET-WELL (844-843-8935).

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