Men in developed countries have a 20 per cent increased risk of developing a problem of alcohol dependence during their lifetimes, according to American researchers from the University of California, San Diego. For women, the risk is put at 10 per cent or less.
The problem is "common in all developed countries," where as many as 80 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women drink at some point during their lives, says the study's lead researcher Marc A. Schuckit. M.D., of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD).
Alcoholism is a condition under which a person becomes addicted to drinks containing alcohol despite of its harmful effects. Alcoholism is a disease either inherited or developed from genetic, psychological or social factors. About 40 to 60 per cent of the risk of alcohol-use disorders is explained by genes and the rest through gene-environment associations which include the availability of alcohol, attitudes towards drinking and drunkenness, peer pressures, levels of stress and related coping strategies, models of drinking, and laws and regulatory frameworks. Excessive alcohol use is associated with blackouts, temporary cognitive deficits, cardiovascular problems, certain cancers and gastrointestinal disease.
The usual independent first drinking starts around 15 years of age and has not changed much in many years. The period when individuals indulge in heavy drinking is usually between 18 and 22 years of age, however, alcohol abuse and dependence often start in the early to mid-20s, at a time when most people begin to moderate their drinking as they concentrate more seriously on work, relationship, career and so on.
Repeated heavy drinking in alcohol-use disorders is associated with a 40 per cent risk of temporary depressive episodes, and as many as 80 per cent of alcohol-dependent people are regular smokers. All of this could reflect either use of the second drug to deal with effects of the first or overlapping genetic predispositions, Dr Schuckit says.
The consequences of alcohol abuse can be extremely damaging to health, the American researchers warn. Cancer is the second leading cause of early death among people with alcohol-use disorders and almost 75 per cent of patients diagnosed with head and neck cancers are those who abuse alcohol. The alcohol-use disorders also double the risk of cancers of the oesophagus, rectum, and breast.
However, the researchers say that problem drinking can be successfully treated. Dr Schuckit says: "Despite perceptions to the contrary, efforts to help patients decrease heavy drinking commonly result in changes in behaviors, and most patients with alcohol-use disorders do well after treatment. About 50-60 per cent of men and women with alcohol dependence abstain or show substantial improvements in functioning the year after treatment, and such outcomes are excellent predictors of their status at three to five years."
The scientist explained that the treatment can include motivational interviewing in order to help people to evaluate their situations, brief interventions to facilitate more healthy behaviors, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and the judicious use of drugs to improve outcomes for alcohol-use disorders.
Official guidelines warn that men should drink no more than three to four units of alcohol per day and as far as women are concerned - they shouldn't drink more than two to three units. However, experts warn that a trend for stronger beverages and the increase in the average glass size in the past years, have made it much more difficult for people to figure out the measurement of how much they are drinking. One large glass of wine is now the equivalent if three units, they warn, meaning that it is naturally pretty easy to exceed the daily norm on a regular basis.
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