Alcoholism vs. Drug Addiction: Is One Worse Than the Other?
Alcoholism (alcohol dependence) and drug addiction are often linked in various ways. In 2012, an estimated 22.2 million US citizens 12-years-old and older reported substance abuse within the last year. Of these individuals, 2.8 million stated they abused both alcohol and drugs, 4.5 million only abused drugs, and 14.9 million abused alcohol or suffered from alcoholism. Stated another way, 17.7 million Americans abused or were addicted to alcohol and 7.3 million abused or were addicted to drugs.
Two of the reasons behind the high instances of alcohol abuse/dependence were:
1. Availability. Anyone can get alcohol. No matter your age. Kids can steal booze from their parents or go to a party where alcohol is served indiscriminately and adults can go down the street and buy it at the liquor store.
2. Perception of risk. Alcohol is a legal drug, so many individuals don’t think it’s dangerous to binge drink (have five or more drinks in a short time period). More people believe it’s riskier to use an illegal drug than it is to abuse alcohol.
The Life Expectancy of an Alcoholic
While it is true that there are plenty of illicit drugs and even legal drugs which are much more dangerous than alcohol, the abuse of alcohol is responsible for countless broken and lost lives. Alcohol abuse is often portrayed as glamorous and fun. The television show Mad Men may give the viewer the idea that alcoholics are quick thinkers and creative individuals. TV advertisements for beer and liquor equate drinking with joy, happiness, and maintaining one’s “edge”. These depictions are however fabricated purely for the purpose of popularizing and selling alcohol. They don’t show the toll and cumulative damage related to constant poisoning of the human body.
Alcohol is a drug which changes how your body functions. Heavy drinking and alcoholism can shorten an individual’s life expectancy by 10-12 years. It can also lower the quality of an individual’s life throughout their lifetime.
It seems like “everybody knows” that alcohol will eventually ruin the alcoholic’s liver, just as “everybody knows” the lungs of a smoker slowly fills with tar. But there are other ways alcohol can cause the death of an alcoholic. These include:
- Higher rates of death by violence, accident, suicide or other injury
- Alcohol overdose (poisoning)
- Alcohol withdrawal and a condition called delirium tremens (“trembling delirium”) which, if not medically monitored and treated, can be fatal
- Inability to recuperate from disease or surgery
Effects of Alcohol
There are many commonly known effects of alcohol, including giddiness, lowered inhibitions, physical imbalance and slurred speech. These are short term effects caused by drinking alcohol in various amounts. There are other physical and mental effects which are caused by heavy drinking (alcohol abuse) and alcoholism. These include:
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Distorted vision and hearing
- Moments of “blacking out” (time in which a person acted drunk but was factually unconscious to greater or lesser degree, and may thus have no memory of these periods)
- Sexual dysfunction
- Increased depression or anxiety
- High blood pressure
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Damage to the heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system
- Physical and mental addiction
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (a brain disorder characterized by mental confusion and loss of cognitive function)
- Cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, or breast
Long term abuse of alcohol is extremely damaging to one’s health. Withdrawal from alcohol has its own set of dangerous symptoms which can occur within two hours of the last drink and continue for days and even weeks. These symptoms include:
- Shaking in extremities
- Irritability, agitation
- Loss of appetite
- Anxiety, nervousness
- Mood swings
- Nausea, vomiting
- Visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations
- Delirium tremens (characterized by mental confusion, rapid heartbeat and fever)
Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms are extremely dangerous and even deadly when not closely monitored.
The Life Expectancy of a Drug Addict
Drug addicts tend to have a shorter life than alcoholics. The average life expectancy of a drug addict is 15 to 20 years after they start being a drug addict. Some of the most common ways a drug addict dies are:
- Death by violence, accident, or suicide
- Organ failure due to a buildup of toxins in the body
- Inability to recuperate from surgery or a disease
- Contracting a disease while addicted, such as HIV/AIDS
Drug abuse and chronic alcohol abuse affect the immune system in similar ways. One reason for this is that drugs and alcohol deplete the body of vital nutrients and minerals. Over time, due to constant chemical bombardment of the user’s body, it becomes harder and harder for the body to heal itself and resist illness. Not only do drugs affect the individual’s health negatively, many addicted people suffer from malnourishment due to their addiction, which can lead to disease and ultimately death.
Effects of Drugs
There are many different types of drugs. There are stimulants like amphetamines, methamphetamine, and Ritalin. There are depressants like OxyContin, heroin, and sleeping pills. There are hallucinogens like LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and mescaline.
Many variables exist as to the effects of specific drugs upon the individual, such as one’s physiology, tolerance, health, age, and mental state. Different drugs create different effects based on chemical composition, quantity, how they are mixed with other drugs and toxins, etc. but they do have some common denominators. Here are some of the effects common to many varieties of drugs, depending on dosages, length of use, etc.:
- Nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation
- Mood swings
- Changes in eating habits
- Irrational behavior
- Depression, irritability, anxiety, paranoia
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- Damage to major organs like the brain, heart, and lungs
- Dependence and addiction
- Heart attack
Addiction’s Common Traits
Both drugs and alcohol work on the basis that the brain will “seek to repeat” actions which caused pleasure. The way many drugs work is by activating various receptors (cell structures) in the brain and inducing feelings of euphoria or pleasure. Because this is the brain’s response to an external stimulus, when the drug wears off, the individual is often exhausted and depressed. This makes the person feel he or she needs more of it in order to achieve the same feeling or even just a sense of normalcy.
Over time the drug user or alcoholic will have to increase the dose of their drug of choice in an effort to get the “desired” result. This is called tolerance and is an indication of dependence and addiction.
The alcoholic and the drug user often exhibit similar compulsive behaviors. These can include lying and stealing from friends and family so they can obtain more drugs or booze. The compulsive user will also stash drugs or alcohol in unlikely places. They may push family and friends away, choosing to spend time with other drug users or heavy drinkers. They will also deny any problem exists while acting in a destructive manner upon themselves and others.
While anyone is fully responsible for his or her actions, it must be understood that the drug user’s or alcoholic’s behavior is largely chemical in nature, meaning the heavy chemical abuse has actually changed their personality, at least while they are using.
In the end, both drug addiction and alcoholism destroy the individual, his family, and any relationships he cared about. The alcoholic may take longer to die than the drug addict, but the quality of life of an alcoholic is commonly one of gradual deterioration.
Whether it’s drugs or alcohol, the addicted person needs help. The best way to help a drug addict or alcoholic is to help him or her get through detox and into rehab as soon as possible. Only once they have worked through the emotional issues which caused the addiction can they move on to a happier life and make healthier choices.