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Course and Prevalence of Addictions

According to surveys done on American populations, in any given year about 10% of the population suffer from an active substance use disorder (Abuse or Dependence) [ref], and another 5% suffered from such disorders in the past [ref].

Over 13% of people will abuse alcohol during their lifetimes, and about 5% will become dependent on alcohol, while 8% will abuse other drugs during their lifetimes and 3% will become dependent on other drugs [ref]. The fact that these individual rates add up to more than the total amount of 15% reflects the fact that there is considerable overlap of alcohol and drug related disorders, with most affected individuals abusing or becoming dependent upon more than one substance [ref].

Substance use disorders typically begin in late adolescence and early-20's, and tend to run a chronic course, often lasting for years. A typical pattern is for there to be periods of partial or complete abstinence from the substance followed by relapses. According to US figures, about two thirds of individuals with substance use disorders never receive any treatment for their condition [ref]. Those who do seek treatment for substance abuse problems tend to have higher rates of other co-occuring psychiatric conditions than those who do not receive treatment [ref]. Even with treatment, it common for relapses to occur during the first few years. The longer an individual is able to maintain abstinence, the better the chances that he or she will not relapse.

Close to 20% of individuals with active substance use disorders will also have a current Mood Disorder, and close to 20% can be diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder; these rates are double of what is found in the general population [ref]. Substance Dependence, being a more severe condition than Substance Abuse, carries as 30% risk of the individual suffering from an active Mood Disorder and a 25% risk of an Anxiety Disorder [ref]. Over half of all individuals with a drug dependence suffer from Mood Disorder and over 40% have Anxiety Disorders [ref].

Conduct Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder and ADHD have all been linked with substance use disorders [ref, ref]. Having a Personality Disorder of any kind has been found to be quite common among certain samples of individuals with Substance Abuse and Dependence, especially those using illicit substances [ref].

Substance use disorders are also associated with with high rates of injury, medical illness and premature death (see the documentation on individual substances for further details). On a societal level, legalized substances of abuse, namely nicotine and alcohol, account for the vast majority of these health consequences [ref, ref] for the simple reason that they are far more widely used. As much as a quarter of all premature deaths in the US can be attributed to the affects of addictive substances [ref].

Attempts to classify the various substances of addiction based on their levels of physical and social harm and dependency risk have suggested that heroin and cocaine are the most harmful and dangerous substances, followed by alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines [ref]. Cannabis, Ecstasy and LSD were all considered to be less harmful overall than nicotine [ref].


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