Is alcoholism a disease? This question has been controversial. The definition of disease in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “a condition of a living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” An alcoholic is living in a condition in which their body has impaired normal functioning and distinguishing signs and symptoms. So, technically and in general, respected health institutions such as the Mayo Clinic consider alcoholism a disease. In fact, they define it as a chronic and often progressive disease. This tends to be the consensus among medical professionals. However, there are opinions on both sides of the fence, and the Internet is busting with arguments on both sides.
The American Medical Association (AMA) proclaimed it a disease in 1966. Prior to this, most people saw alcoholism as a choice. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that the Veteran’s Administration could consider alcoholism a choice instead of a disease. Proponents of the disease theory often compare it to diabetes. People without diabetes are able to metabolize sugars in a way that people with diabetes cannot. Further, one does not develop diabetes without eating sugar similar to the way that alcoholism does not present without the presence of alcohol consumption. However, this comparison is not accepted by everyone.
Many feel that the idea that alcoholism is a disease has deterred people from taking responsibility for their choices. It is easier to say, “Oh, I can’t help it. I have this awful disease that makes me drink a lot,” or “I inherited this from my dad who was an alcoholic. It’s just my destiny.” Another criticism of the idea that alcoholism is a disease is that there are no physical measures associated with diagnosis of the disease. There are no tests that can be run on a person to determine whether they have the disease. Taking it a step further, people wonder what else will be labeled a disease – pedophilia (addiction to having sex with children), gambling addictions, overeating, etc. It is a slippery slope when indulgences in pleasurable activities, vices, and addictions begin to be labeled as diseases.
This is an entirely different question yet a related one. Some argue that it is because trends can be observed in families. It isn’t unusual to see a grandfather, father, and son who all succumb to alcoholism. Yet others argue that alcoholism in America was rare in the early days so where was the gene then? How can we tell if it is a learned behavior or a inherited genetic trait? The answer is: So far we can’t tell. Furthermore, you can’t have alcoholism without alcohol. So if someone never consumes an alcoholic beverage, are they still an alcoholic genetically speaking? You can see that there is a lot of gray in this subject. Things aren’t very black and white as it may seem at first appearance.
Many studies have been conducted with the goal of finding a biologic marker for the development of alcoholism. However, the studies have been unsuccessful in their aim. If this were to be found, this would greatly effect diagnosis and treatment of alcoholism.
If you have a parent or close family member who has alcoholism, it is important to be cautious in your alcohol consumption. Whether it is a genetic issue or a learned behavior, there is still reason for caution. Know the warning signs. Consider the consequences. Get help when needed.
As you can see, the questions of whether alcoholism is a disease or whether it is genetic are hotly debated topics with differing opinions based on differing experiences both from alcoholics and non-alcoholics. The medical community and 12-step groups tend to adopt the disease concept. You will need to make your own informed decision about what is best for you and/or your loved ones when it comes to alcohol consumption. Alcoholism is a condition that needs to be taken seriously, regardless of the cause.
Written - 2015