National Survey on Alcohol Use Disorder Reveals Increase In Problem Drinking

By John Lavitt 07/13/15

Using criteria in DSM-5, the research underscored how alcohol problems are deeply entrenched in society.


A national epidemiologic survey on alcohol abuse has revealed a marked increase in problem drinking. Employing the new criteria in the DSM-5 for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the survey results painted a negative picture. AUD is the clinical term for drinking that causes mild to severe harm or distress.

As defined by DSM-5 criteria and revealed in the survey, AUD turns out to be a highly prevalent, highly co-morbid, disabling disorder that often goes untreated in the United States. With 88,000 Americans dying from alcohol-related causes between 2006 and 2010, AUD is 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. Unlike previous versions, DSM-5 combined two different disorders highlighted 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 AUD 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. Funded by NIAAA and NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the study was published online 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. Despite these results, 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. Given the focus on younger men, the lack of help seeking becomes more understandable.

To compare changes in the population over time, the researchers examined how many people met the DSM-IV’s criteria for the two 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.

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

Although more research is needed to figure out why rates of disordered drinking have increased, such increases signal the need for treatment and prevention actions to be taken. The NESARC-III data indicates an urgent need to educate the public and policymakers about AUD and its treatment alternatives while destigmatizing the disorder. Most importantly, efforts are needed to encourage those who cannot reduce their alcohol consumption on their own, despite substantial harm to themselves and others, to seek treatment.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.