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So how does addiction affect us? The fact is that abuse and addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and illegal substances cost all of us upwards of half a trillion dollars a year. That happens when you take into account the combined medical, economic, criminal, and social impact addiction has. Each and every year, abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol contributes to the death of more than 100,000 Americans, while tobacco is linked to an estimated 440,000 deaths per year. Our children are starting to drink at an earlier age and lately, they are turning to prescription and over-the-counter medications to get high.
Essentially, addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain - they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.
So why do people take drugs and abuse alcohol? There are a variety of reasons.
Many do so because they want to feel good. The drugs they take produce intense feelings of pleasure. This initial sensation of euphoria is followed by other effects, which differ with the type of drug used. Cocaine gives the abuser the "high" he or she desires and is then followed by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy. Heroin also provides its user feelings of relaxation and satisfaction.
Some people use drugs to feel better, because they suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders, and depression. They begin abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress. Stress can play a major role in beginning drug use, continuing drug abuse, or relapse in patients recovering from addiction.
People also use drugs because they want to alleviate the pressure they feel to do better or improve their athletic or cognitive performance. Similarly, some people do so because of curiosity and because “other” are doing so. Peer pressure, especially among adolescents play a major role in people’s initial experimentation and continued drug abuse.
The problem is that at first, people may perceive what seem to be positive effects with drug use. They also may believe that they can control their use; however, drugs can quickly take over their lives. Consider how a social drinker can become intoxicated, put himself behind a wheel and quickly turn a pleasurable activity into a tragedy for him and others. Over time, if drug use continues, pleasurable activities become less pleasurable, and drug abuse becomes necessary for abusers to simply feel "normal." Drug abusers reach a point where they seek and take drugs, despite the tremendous problems caused for themselves and their loved ones. Some individuals may start to feel the need to take higher or more frequent doses, even in the early stages of their drug use.
It is important to understand that as with any other disease, vulnerability to addiction differs from person to person. In general, the more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that taking drugs will lead to abuse and addiction. And there is no one single factor that determines whether a person will become addicted to drugs. The overall risk for addiction is impacted by the biological makeup of the individual - it can even be influenced by gender or ethnicity, his or her developmental stage, and the surrounding social environment (e.g., conditions at home, at school, and in the neighborhood).
The good news is that addiction is a treatable disease. Discoveries in the science of addiction have led to advances in drug abuse treatment that help people stop abusing drugs and resume productive lives.
The key to successful treatment is long-term engagement and this does not only means inpatient treatment. Today, a heart attack patient may stay in the hospital for a few days to get stabilized. He then begins a long-standing relationship with a cardiologist that may include medication and regular follow-up visits as the patient works to restructure his life in a healthier fashion. This is true with the addict in recovery.
We know that addiction need not be a life sentence. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed successfully. Treatment enables people to counteract addiction's powerful disruptive effects on brain and behavior and regain control of their lives.