I recently read an article claiming that addiction is not a disease. And I'm not sorry to say, that's bullshit.
Saying that addiction is not a disease because it starts with a choice is completely discrediting the scientific facts proving that it is a disease of the brain. The American Society of Addiction Medicine classifies addiction as a chronic disease of the brain, and not without good reason.
The article mentioned above has several flaws in its argument. The first flaw in this argument is that it states that addiction is not hereditary or degenerative (which by the way, it is).
There isn't such thing as a single "addiction gene." Instead, there are biological differences, combinations of genes and differences in DNA sequences that can make people more or less susceptible to addiction, as well as certain genes being present that make it easier or harder to stop their use once addiction has begun. These genes and sequences in DNA can be passed down in families, causing those who are related to someone suffering from addiction to be more susceptible to addiction as well. The University of Utah compiled a list of genes that have been linked to playing a role in addiction which can be found here.
Studies of identical twins showed that if one twin was to experience addiction, 76 percent of the time the other twin will also experience addiction, and vice-versa.
The part that really kills me about this article is saying that addiction is not degenerative. I just don't understand how someone could have such a lack of knowledge in the role drugs play on the brain to try and say that they do not cause any deterioration of the brain.
First, we'll start with central nervous system stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamines. These drugs speed up brain activity, increase blood pressure and increase heart rate. This causes blood vessels to constrict which causes strokes and can cause blood pressure to become so high it causes sudden death. Chronic cocaine users often experience cardiac arrest or seizures due to their prolonged use. Prolonged use of meth can cause permanent damage to certain brain cells, the most prevalent being those of dopaminergic chemical signaling (causing a decrease in dopamine levels). The University of Utah performed research showing that meth users were three times more likely than non-drug users to develop Parkinson's disease due to the damage of the dopaminergic system. More studies have shown that abuse of drugs such as meth and ecstasy can have neurological consequences that are similar to that of traumatic brain injuries.
Alcoholism can cause those a deficit in vitamins such as Vitamin B1. Lack of this vitamin can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a disabling disorder that can cause paralysis of nerves controlling the eyes, problems with coordination, involuntary eye movements and double vision. 90 percent of those with this syndrome go on to develop Korsakoff's psychosis which can cause more coordination issues, trouble walking, chronic memory issues and hallucinations.
Data suggest that chronic opioid users, which includes prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, Percocet, oxycodone and heroin, modifies the function and structure of the brain that causes issues with impulse control and emotion regulation. Research also suggests that chronic heroin users will experience degeneration of white matter in the brain, which can cause issues with stress management, behavior regulation and the ability to perform decision making.
Inhalants can cause sudden death just like stimulants by causing irregular heart rate and consequently causing heart failure. But along with that, certain inhalants (such as toluene and naphthalene) can cause damage to the myelin sheath in nerves fibers which directly help conduct nerve impulses. More nerve damage due to inhalants can cause complications similar to those who suffer from multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that causes issues with coordination, weakness in limbs, numbness/tremors, issues with attention/memory, and speech impediments. Chronic use of inhalants can also cause issues with movement, hearing, vision and cognition.
As you can see, chronic drug use does cause degeneration of the body and the brain.The next part of the article that I have an issue with is the line "A patient with cancer is not cured if locked in a cell, whereas an alcoholic is automatically cured. No access to alcohol means no alcoholism." For someone who is heavily addicted to drugs, quitting cold turkey can be incredibly unsafe. There are plenty of drugs where if you were to put this person locked in a cell and force them to quit, they'll die. For some people, using these drugs long enough causes their body to literally become dependant on them to function. Sudden withdrawal can cause some serious issues. Alcohol withdrawal can cause brain damage, seizures, heart palpitation, and death. A combination of these is called delirium tremens, which occurs in up to 10 percent of all alcoholics who attempt to detox and ultimately kills 35 percent of them. In fact, Psychology Today says that quitting alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids cold turkey, without medical help, can kill you.
Lastly, I have an issue with this article saying "When we allow people to refer to addiction as a disease, we are placing it alongside things like cancer and that is not fair at all." Before I continue, I do not want to discredit how truly awful cancer is. That is not my intention. What I'm irritated with is people saying that addiction and cancer are not comparable. It's true that many forms of cancer develop for reasons unknown that are out of our control. But cancers such as lung cancer (caused by smoking) and melanoma (caused by prolonged exposure to the sun or UV lights, a.k.a. tanning) are things we can control. Would you look at someone with lung cancer or melanoma and say "Well, you decided to smoke/tan. It was a choice you made, so your disease is invalid"? No, you wouldn't. Would you look at someone with diabetes or heart disease and say "Well, you chose to eat poorly and not exercise, so your disease in invalid"? No, you wouldn't.
Yes, addiction starts with the choice of the person to pick up that drug. But their brain and their body literally form a dependency and it is out of their control to whether or not they form an addiction. No one wants to have cancer. No one wants to have diabetes or heart disease. And no one wants to have an addiction to drugs.
While the first use and early stage of addiction is a choice, eventually the brain will change so much that people will lose control of their behavior and will to stop because their body is dependant on the drug. Eating poorly/not exercising is a choice, smoking is a choice and tanning is a choice, yet we accept the diseases that are consequently developed from these choices. Why can we not accept that addiction is also a disease?
It's time society stops turning a blind eye to the facts at hand. Addiction is hereditary, it is degenerative, it can kill, it is a disease. By trying to force the notion that addiction is a choice and not a disease you are preventing people from seeking help from their disease because they fear the societal repercussions. Addiction is a disease, and those suffering deserve all the help that those suffering from other diseases get.
I don't care if you think addiction is a choice; you're wrong. I have presented plenty of backed up facts to prove that this belief is wrong and honestly downright stupid. If you continue to hold onto this notion, you are a part of the problem preventing those affected from getting help.
Addiction is a disease, not a choice. And it's about time we start acting like it.