Alcohol Use Disorder Affects Nearly One in Three American Adults

By May Wilkerson 06/05/15

There has also been a significant increase in binge drinking.

Alcoholic Drinking

More Americans are drinking excessively than ever before, a new government survey finds. Almost 33 million adults in the US, or one in seven adults, have struggled with an alcohol problem in the last year, and nearly one in three adults have suffered an “alcohol-use disorder” at some point in their lives, according to the study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry this week. And nearly 80% of these problem drinkers have never sought treatment.

The study was the first to examine the prevalence of “alcohol-use disorder,” a new classification in the recently revised DSM-5, which is defined as “problem drinking that becomes severe.”

The revised version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) combined alcohol abuse and dependence, which had previously been classified as separate disorders. The new handbook defines “problem drinkers” as those with at least two of 11 symptoms, including frequent hangovers, compromised performance at work, school or home, or failed attempts to cut back. Two to three symptoms is considered a mild problem, and at least six symptoms is considered severe.

Researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study surveyed 36,000 Americans during 2012 and 2013 about their drinking habits. They found that about 14% of adults, or nearly 33 million throughout the US, qualified as current or recent problem drinkers. Thirty percent, or 69 million people nationally, had been problem drinkers at some point in their lives, and 14% had experienced a severe drinking problem.

Rates of recent or current problem drinking, based on the previous definition, have risen from 9% to 13% since the last time the survey was taken in 2001-2002. There has also been a significant increase in binge drinking, defined as consuming more than five drinks in a day at least once in the past year. The study found that 40% of adults surveyed said they had engaged in binge drinking, a 31% increase from the previous survey.

Rates of problem drinking were highest among men, white people and Native Americans. The disorder was also more prevalent among low-income adults, people under 30 and those who had never been married. The survey also found higher rates of problem drinking in cities than rural areas.

Dr. George Koob, director of the federal agency that conducted the survey, said that many people underestimate the dangers of excessive drinking, and that “stigma and denial” prevent many people from seeking help, as well as a lack of information about treatment options. "There's a lore that there's only Alcoholics Anonymous out there, and that's not true," he said.

He pointed out that excessive drinking costs the US “a great deal”—approximately $224 billion each year in accidents, DUIs and medical bills for alcohol-related ailments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We could save a lot if we addressed alcohol-use disorders and treated them,” he said.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.