In a recent report released last week, the Surgeon General’s office called for alcohol abuse to be recognized as a serious medical condition – putting alcohol abuse on the same level as cancer and heart disease.
The report, titled “Facing Addiction in America,” argued that findings from medical research should be used more often as a guide for how to treat and prevent alcohol abuse and addiction. The report further emphasized the need to conceptualize alcoholism as a physical disease, rather than as a moral failure or a failure of willpower.
“Science tells us clearly that addiction is a disease of the brain,” said Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. “It affects the circuitry of our brain that controls decision-making, impulse control and our stress and reward systems.”
Addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder; physical changes take place in the brain that alter day-to-day functioning even after years of sobriety.
In the report, Murthy asserts that substance abuse programs should be moved into the general health care programs in order to better serve the tens of millions of Americans who need help. Further, Murthy and his team insist that recovery programs are much more effective at treating substance abuse and lowering the risk of relapse because each program is tailored to the individual with the addiction, allowing the health care practitioner more flexibility to address the needs of the person.
Moreover, the report detailed alcohol’s major impact on America’s health and economy – more than $249 billion is spent each year due to alcohol abuse.
“(Alcohol) really is a cost leader in terms of deaths, lost work days and motor vehicle fatalities, but it gets a fraction of the (National Institutes of Health) money that illicit drugs get,” said Barbara Mason, an addiction scientist as Scripps Research.
Mason also says that scientists have recently discovered medication that can help moderate the changes in the brain cause by alcoholism. One of the drugs found to have promising effects is gabapentin, which was originally approved for epilepsy treatment. In a study led by Mason, gabapentin was found to help alcohol-dependent patients avoid heavy drinking by relieving stress and inducing drowsiness.
Further, the National Institutes of Health is working to educate doctors and other health care practitioners on how to use already approved medication, like gabapentin, to help wean people off of alcohol.