Pills, cocaine, heroine, pot, coffee, cigarettes, chewing gum, chocolate, plastic surgery — What do they all have in common? They are potential mine fields for addiction.
To some, addiction looks like a personality flaw, but in reality it is a serious biological disorder. The question I get is, "Are we born with the potential for being addicted to drugs?"
The short answer is yes and no. We all have the potential to become chemically dependent, but exposure and physiological predisposition play a significant role. Substance abuse creates biological changes in our brain that alter the mechanism of normal function. During our lifetime we're all exposed to many things, from painkillers to kitchen cleaners, glue to coffee, and chocolate to chewing gum. Yet only a percentage of us end up addicted to these substances. We are social creatures. We look for things that make us feel good or make us feel better. As children we look for the comfort of a loved one. As we get older we find comfort in hobbies or sports.
We never stay the same. As we mature our personality develops, expands, and broadens (it may not seem that way all the time), and although it's not fully understood why, some people begin to develop addictive traits. Take physicians or scientists for instance — many of us are addicted to our work. But it's not exclusive to those of us in the medical field. For example, I look around the newsroom here at FOX and see people who work really hard and put in so many hours at the office, they may as well keep cots under their desks.
It's common for overachievers to become workaholics, and then they develop poor eating or sleeping habits. And guess what? They are addicts too — but to their work. Some start to dope on coffee, others on booze. One drink becomes two. Two becomes three, and so on. Some take up smoking, or never quit. They don't pay attention to what they eat, how much they eat, or when they eat. Yes, I know that many workaholics, myself included, are able to manage a balanced life. And that's exactly the point: Keep it under control.
People can become addicted to anything, drugs, alcohol, exercise, food, even plastic surgery. Addiction is a physical and psychological dependence on substance or behavior. There are risk factors. Being a child of addicts and/or receiving a lack of positive emotions growing up — such as love, joy, and intimacy — could push some individuals toward addiction. For some the addiction becomes a replacement, a substitute and an asylum from painful feelings or stress. You've probably heard people say that so-and-so "stopped smoking, but now he chews gum all the time." Often times, one addiction replaced another. Hopefully, people choose the lesser of two evils.
However, when we think of addiction we are usually referring to substance abuse. The statistics are quite alarming. 18.2 million people age 12 or older met the criteria for alcohol dependence or abuse in the past year. Of the emergency department visits with co-occurring diagnoses, the drugs most frequently reported were cocaine (31.8%), alcohol (29.3%), opiates/options (18.0%) and marijuana (16.3%).
I see addiction firsthand in my line of work. One of the most common causes of premature births in many of our inner-city hospitals is maternal drug addiction. Children as small as two pounds are born already addicted to substances such as cocaine, crack, or heroin. They go through withdrawal, experiencing horrible symptoms like crying, irritability, and sleeplessness. Most of them are malnourished and their long-term prognosis could be somewhat difficult.
Senior drug addiction is also increasing. More seniors are being seen in treatment centers. They are being given more pills for their ailments and many of them either 1) haven't skipped the cocktail hour in 40 years so why start now; or 2) never stopped abusing whatever they were before; or 3) take so many pills they don't even realize they may be addicted. About one-third of older adults who abuse alcohol or illegal drugs began recently. Although not much different than those for younger adults, drug addiction treatments for seniors can be complicated and risky (diabetes and/or hypertension being some of those risks).
Links between ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in adults and addictive behavior needs to be studied further and treatment options developed. We have to slow down our dependency on pills. Ambien, the sleep aid medication associated with the Patrick Kennedy incident, is being prescribed to millions of Americans annually. We have to find alternative ways to deal with stress, sleeping disorders or food addiction.
Mental health needs to be prioritized. And while it was easy for Mr. Kennedy to just take off to the Mayo Clinic and get the help he needs, many inner-city hospitals struggle to provide their patients with the care they need.
There are millions of citizens that have overcome their addiction. These individuals are living proof that this disease can be beat. Let me use a cliché: Where there's a will, there's a way. It all starts with us. It's personal responsibility.
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Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Click here for more information on Dr. Manny's work with Hackensack University Medical Center. Visit AskDrManny.com for more.