It’s Official: A Lot of Us Have a Drinking Problem


A new study takes a look at the prevalence of alcohol use disorder among U.S. adults. (Photo: Corbis/Bruno Ehrs)

Nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. engage in problem drinking — also known as an alcohol use disorder — at some point in their lives, a new study shows.

The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, also shows that a startlingly low number of people actually receive treatment — 19.8 percent. 

“These findings underscore that alcohol problems are deeply entrenched and significantly under-treated in our society,” George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said in a statement.

The study included in-person interviews with 36,000 people who were part of the 2012-2013 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III.

Researchers asked the study participants about their alcohol use, drug use, and psychiatric conditions. They also assessed whether any of the participants’ answers qualified them for a diagnosis of alcohol problems based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). They analyzed whether the participants’ answers would qualify them for either alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence, which were considered two distinct disorders in the fourth edition of the DSM, or for the single disorder called alcohol use disorder (which has mild, moderate, and severe subclassifications), which is in the fifth and current edition of the DSM.

The results? Nearly 14 percent of adults met the criteria in the past year for alcohol abuse disorder, while 29.1 percent of adults met the criteria for alcohol abuse disorder at some point in their lives.

Related: Why More and More Women Are Binge Drinking

Researchers also noticed the rates of alcohol use disorders increasing over the last decade. Prevalence was higher among men, younger people, people who were previously or never married, white people, and Native American people.

The findings highlight “the urgency of educating the public and policy makers about AUD [alcohol use disorder] and its treatments, destigmatizing the disorder and encouraging those who cannot reduce their alcohol consumption on their own, despite substantial harm to themselves and others, to seek treatment,” the researchers wrote in the study.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women should keep alcohol consumption to up to one drink per day and men should keep their consumption to up to two drinks per day. Alcohol abuse has a number of dangerous effects on the body — it can damage the heart, liver, and pancreas and is known to increase the risk of developing certain cancers.

Related: What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain, Heart, and Muscles

To be diagnosed with alcohol abuse disorder, you must meet at least 2 of 11 criteria in the same 12-month period (the more criteria met, the more severe the disorder). To determine how many of the criteria you meet, according to the NIAAA, ask yourself if you have:

  1. Had times when you ended up drinking more or longer than you intended?

  2. More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?

  3. Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?

  4. Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?

  5. Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?

  6. Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?

  7. Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?

  8. More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?

  9. Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?

  10. Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?

  11. Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?

If you are having trouble managing your alcohol consumption and suspect you may have an alcohol abuse disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s toll-free number: 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 

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