Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder, is a common behavioral or mental health condition that many people struggle to overcome. While men tend to drink more than women, and young adults more than teens or older adults, no one is immune to the risk of developing a dependence on alcohol. The consequences of alcoholism can be serious and range from relationship and financial problems to accidents, injuries, long-term physical health problems, and even fatal alcohol poisoning. Alcoholism is a problem for many Americans, but there are treatments available to help manage this condition.
Alcoholism statistics say a lot about the misuse of this legal substance of abuse, both in the U.S. and worldwide. It is the most common substance of abuse and is misused by adults and minors alike. Although alcohol is legal, it can cause serious physical and mental health problems, not least of which is dependence, or alcoholism, a condition that can be treated but must be managed over the long-term.
Alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, statistics change every year, but the changing picture helps inform public policy and enlighten individuals. In 2019, 14.5 million people 12 or older had an Alcohol Use Disorder.
When people better understand just how big a problem alcohol use can be, they are empowered to make better decisions. When drinking does become an uncontrollable issue, there are professional treatments available to help.
Alcoholism, Heavy Drinking, Binge Drinking
There are many terms associated with problematic drinking that are often used interchangeably but that actually have different meanings. To really understand the statistics of alcoholism, it is important to understand what these terms mean. For instance, alcoholism is traditionally used to describe someone who is addicted to alcohol, who is physically dependent.
Addiction experts today don’t often use the term alcoholism. Instead, they use the term alcohol use disorder. An alcohol use disorder may be mild, moderate, or severe. Severe alcohol use disorder is often used interchangeable with alcoholism. The diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder include:
- Drinking more than planned
- Trying and failing to cut down on alcohol use
- Spending a lot of time and money drinking or suffering from hangovers
- Craving a drink
- Trouble at work, school, or at home because of drinking
- Drinking in spite of it causing relationship difficulties
- Avoiding other activities in favor of drinking
- Drinking in dangerous situations
- Experiencing physical or mental health problems from alcohol use
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol
- Having withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
Binge drinking does not necessarily mean someone has an alcohol use disorder, but many people who do engage in this kind of drinking. It means having enough alcohol in one sitting to raise blood alcohol content to 0.08 or higher, which is typically caused by four drinks for women and five for men. Heavy drinking is also problematic but does not necessarily identify someone as an alcoholic. Heavy drinking is defined as binge drinking five or more days in one month.
U.S. Alcoholism Statistics
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health includes tens of thousands of Americans to get a yearly picture of substance use and substance use disorders, including alcohol use and alcoholism. The most recent survey results show important statistics about drinking, alcoholism, and alcohol use disorder in the U.S.:
- About 15 million Americans, age 12 and older, met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder in 2019.
- This was not much of a change from 2015, although it represented a general decline since 2002.
- In 2019, 1.7 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 (414,000 individuals) met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
- This was a significant drop compared to the years 2002 to 2010 when between 4.6 and 6 percent of adolescents had an alcohol use disorder.
- 14.5 million Americans 12 and older had an Alcohol Use Disorder in 2019.
- Also in 2019, 5.2 percent of adults aged 26 and older had an alcohol use disorder.
- For all age groups, there was little change in the prevalence of alcohol use disorder from 2015 to 2016, but all saw overall drops in prevalence from 2002 through 2014.
Binge Drinking and Alcoholism
Binge drinking is a problematic behavior that can increase the risk of having an accident, of being injured or killed, of being assaulted, of contracting a sexually transmitted disease or of having an unwanted pregnancy, and of dying from alcohol poisoning. In 2019, 25.8% of adults 18 and over reported engaging in binge drinking in the past month. While there are many immediate risks if binge drinking, one long-term risk is the development of alcohol dependence later.
However, statistics show that nine out of 10 people who engage in binge drinking are not, in fact, alcoholics. In some people, binge drinking may be a sign of alcohol use disorder or alcoholism. One of the criteria of the condition is drinking more than intended. When someone binge drinks regularly, trying to cut back and drink with more moderation, it can count as a sign of alcohol use disorder.
Alcoholism in College
Drinking on college campuses is a significant issue, even though most students are not alcoholics. According to the National Institutes of Health, 58 percent of full-time college students drink. This is as compared to 48 percent of people of the same age who are not in college. Nearly 38 percent of college students binge drinks, and 13 percent engages in heavy drinking.
To be diagnosed with mild alcohol use disorder, a person only needs to meet two or three of the diagnostic criteria. By those standards, nearly 20 percent of college students already have an alcohol use disorder. The consequences of drinking for college students potentially include car crashes and injuries from other accidents, sexual assault or other type of physical assault, and poor academic performance. One study, though, found that although they drink more, college students are not at a greater risk for later alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, than their non-college peers.
Women and Alcoholism
Women have traditionally had lower rates of all types of problem drinking behaviors than men, as well as lower rates of alcohol use disorder and alcoholism, but misuse of alcohol among women is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of adult women drink and 12 percent binge drink at least three times per month. In the past year, 2.5 percent of women had an alcohol use disorder, as compared to 4.5 percent of men.
Many women are affected more quickly by drinking alcohol and require less alcohol to become intoxicated than men. They are at risk for many of the same issues and health problems, but there are unique risks too: unplanned pregnancies, infertility, and harm to unborn children. The latter can include fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, miscarriage, stillbirth, and sudden infant death syndrome.
The Burden of Alcoholism
There are many well-known individual risks of heavy drinking, binge drinking, and having an alcohol use disorder, but these can also be seen in a larger context. For instance, about 88,000 people die every year from alcohol-related causes. About a third of all fatal driving accidents involve alcohol. These facts show that alcohol is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths, behind only tobacco and physical inactivity combined with poor diet.
Alcoholism and heavy drinking also have an economic burden. In the U.S. in 2010, the cost of misusing alcohol was approximately $249 billion. Drinking causes lost production in workplaces and heavy healthcare costs. Most of the cost of drinking is attributed to binge drinking, which may or may not be related to an alcohol use disorder. Alcoholism and drinking also cause a global burden, with nearly 6 percent of deaths worldwide attributed to alcohol. Around the world, misusing alcohol is the fifth leading cause of disability overall but is the leading cause in people between the ages of 15 and 49.
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Alcohol Recovery Is Possible
The burden of alcoholism and problem drinking behaviors is high, both for individuals and society at large. For individuals, there is hope in the form of treatment. Anyone struggling with alcoholism can benefit from expert addiction treatment that includes different types of therapy, group support, medication and medical treatment, overall healthcare and lifestyle changes, and supportive services.
Even for people with a mild alcohol use disorder, or for those who binge drink, some level of treatment can be beneficial and can even prevent or reduce the risk of developing a severe alcohol use disorder. Mild alcohol use disorder is highly treatable, and it is easier to make positive changes at this stage of the condition than to wait until it is severe. The facts about alcoholism are alarming, but individuals have the ability to take steps to make positive changes by reaching out for support and professional assistance.