June 29, 2015

Study Shows Increase in Problem Drinking

At a Glance

  • A nationwide survey revealed that alcohol use disorder is becoming more common, but few people seek treatment.
  • The study highlights the need for renewed efforts to educate the public about problem drinking and its treatment.
Silhouette of a woman resting her head in her hands. Alcohol use disorder, the clinical term for drinking that causes mild to severe harm or distress, is becoming more common.Kieferpix/Thinkstock

Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, is the clinical term for drinking that causes mild to severe harm or distress. Excessive drinking can interfere with school, work, and relationships. It also increases the risk of many ailments, including heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, depression, and certain cancers. Almost 88,000 Americans died from alcohol-related causes between 2006 and 2010, making it the third-leading cause of preventable death.

Doctors and researchers diagnose AUD using criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The fifth version of these standards, called DSM-5, was published in 2013. DSM-5 combined 2 different disorders described previously in DSM-IV—alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence—into the single disorder of AUD.

To find out how many Americans meet the criteria for the new diagnosis, a team of researchers led by Dr. Bridget F. Grant of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) interviewed more than 36,000 U.S. adults. The interviews were conducted in 2012 and 2013. The study, funded by NIAAA and NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), was published online on June 3, 2015, in JAMA Psychiatry.

About 14% of the people interviewed met the criteria for AUD in the past year and 29% at some point in their lives. However, only 7.7% of the former group and 19.8% of the latter sought help with their drinking problems. AUD was more common in men than in women. It was also more common in young adults than in older adults.

To compare changes in the population over time, the researchers examined how many people met the DSM-IV’s criteria for the 2 disorders that were merged into AUD. They found that 12.7% of respondents met those criteria in the past year and 43.6% did at some point in their lives. This was a large increase from survey results in 2001 and 2002, in which 8.5% of respondents met the criteria for AUD in the past year and 30.3% at some point in their lives.

“These findings underscore that alcohol problems are deeply entrenched and significantly under-treated in our society,” says NIAAA Director Dr. George F. Koob. “The new data should provide further impetus for scientists, clinicians, and policymakers to bring AUD treatment into the mainstream of medical practice.”

The researchers say that more research is needed to figure out why rates of disordered drinking have increased. They also call for better prevention and intervention programs.

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Reference: Epidemiology of DSM-5 alcohol use disorder: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III. Grant BF, Goldstein RB, Saha TD, Chou SP, Jung J, Zhang H, Pickering RP, Ruan WJ, Smith SM, Huang B, Hasin D. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 June 3. Doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0584. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 26039070.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).