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What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also called alcohol dependence or alcohol addiction, is a destructive pattern of alcohol use that includes tolerance to or withdrawal from the substance, using more alcohol or using it for longer than planned, and trouble reducing its use. Other potential symptoms include spending an inordinate amount of time getting, using, or recovering from the use of alcohol, compromised functioning, and/or continuing to use alcohol despite an awareness of the detrimental effects it is having on one's life. Alcoholism is appropriately considered a disease rather than a weakness of character or chosen pattern of bad behavior. It is the third most common mental illness, affecting more than 14 million people in the United States. Other facts and statistics about alcohol dependence include its pattern of afflicting about 4% of women and 10% of men. It costs more than $165 billion per year in lower productivity, early death, and costs for treatment.

What differentiates alcohol abuse from alcoholism?

While both alcohol abuse and alcoholism involve engaging in maladaptive behaviors in the use of alcohol, abuse of this substance does not include the person having withdrawal symptoms or needing more and more amounts to achieve intoxication unless the person has developed alcoholism.

What are risk factors for alcoholism?

Risk factors for developing a drinking problem include depression, anxiety, or another mood problem in the individual, as well as having parents with alcoholism. Low self-esteem and feeling out of place are other risk factors for developing alcohol dependence. In women, antisocial behaviors and impulsivity are associated with the development of alcohol dependence. Both men and women are more likely to develop alcoholism if they have a childhood history of being physically or sexually abused. Children and teens who have their first drink of alcohol between 11 and 14 years of age are more at risk for developing a drinking problem than those who do so when either younger or older.

What causes alcoholism? Is alcoholism hereditary?

One frequently asked question about alcoholism is if it is hereditary. As with most other mental disorders, alcohol dependence has no one single cause and is not directly passed from one generation to another genetically. Rather, it is the result of a complex group of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors.

What are alcohol abuse and alcoholism symptoms and signs in teenagers, women, men, and the elderly?

Signs that indicate a person is intoxicated include the smell of alcohol on their breath or skin, glazed or bloodshot eyes, the person being unusually passive or argumentative, and/or a deterioration in the person's appearance or hygiene. Other physical symptoms of the state of being drunk include flushed skin. Cognitively, the person may experience decreased ability to pay attention and a propensity toward memory loss.

Alcohol, especially when consumed in excess, can affect teens, women, men, and the elderly quite differently. Women and the elderly tend to have higher blood concentrations of alcohol compared to men and younger individuals who drink the same amount. Alcoholic women are more at risk for developing cirrhosis of the liver and heart and nerve damage at a faster rate than alcohol-dependent men. Interestingly, men and women seem to have similar learning and memory problems as the result of excessive alcohol intake, but again, women tend to develop those problems twice as fast as men.

Elderly people who drink excessively are at risk for having more serious illnesses, doctor visits, and symptoms of depression, with less life satisfaction and smaller social support networks compared to senior citizens who have never consumed alcohol. While binge drinking is often thought to be a symptom of young people, an often unknown, uncommon fact is that a significant percentage of middle-aged and elderly individuals also engage in binge drinking. This behavior increases the risk for driving drunk, no matter what the age.

Teenagers who consume alcohol excessively have been found to be at risk for abnormal organ development as the possible result of the hormonal abnormalities caused by alcohol. This is particularly a risk to their developing reproductive system. Just a few of the other many dangerous effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism in teenagers include the following:

1) In contrast to adults, teens tend to abuse alcohol simultaneously with other substances, usually marijuana.

2) Male teens who drink heavily tend to complete fewer years of education compared to male teens who do not drink.

3) The younger a person is when they begin drinking, the more likely they are to develop a problem with alcohol.

4) Each year, almost 2,000 people under 21 years of age die in car crashes in which underage drinking is involved. Alcohol is involved in nearly half of all violent deaths involving teens.

5) More than three times the number of eighth-grade girls who drink heavily said they have attempted suicide compared to girls in that grade who do not drink.

6) Teens who drink are more likely to engage in sexual activity, have unprotected sex, have sex with a stranger, or be the victim or perpetrator of a sexual assault.

7) Excess alcohol use can cause or mask other emotional problems, like anxiety or depression.

8) Drinking in excess can lead to the use of other drugs, like marijuana, cocaine, or heroin.