What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a primary, chronic, progressive disorder that has a predictable course; with inherited, physical, psychological and environmental risk factors; and is fatal if not treated and its progress arrested.


A Disease of the Brain

Alcoholism is also a brain disease because alcohol changes the brain—it changes its structure, how it works and how it thinks. These brain changes can be long lasting, and lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who are alcoholic.



Alcoholism is not the result of another disorder but it is a causative factor in other disorders.



Alcoholism is a chronic condition that continues over a long time, progresses consistently or intermittently, and can be managed.


Progressive and Predictable 

As an addictive drug, alcohol use over time can lead to craving and impaired control. Even if the decision to drink is voluntary at first, what happens after someone takes a drink depends to a large extent on an individual’s genetic vulnerability to alcoholism, and how one’s body and mind react to alcohol.


A patient may not experience many symptoms until alcoholism has advanced. Some patients may relapse more frequently than others.


Each person processes alcohol in a unique way. 

Women’s bodies don’t tolerate alcohol as well as men’s. Because of their physiology, they develop alcohol-related medical problems more rapidly than men. Women also develop brain atrophy, cognitive deficits, a higher depression index, alcoholic heart problems, myopathy of skeletal muscle, and alcoholic liver disease faster than men.


Although a single gene or set of genes has not been found that causes alcoholism, the risk for developing alcoholism is estimated to be between 50 to 60 percent inherited.


Many Chinese and Japanese people have a genetic predisposition to alcohol that causes physically unpleasant reactions so strong that they prefer not to drink. They experience early and acute headache, nausea, flushing & rapid heartbeat.


Research has shown that sons of alcoholic fathers very often have a much greater tolerance for alcohol. Their brain chemistry actually encourages heavier drinking.


People use alcohol to feel good, at least initially, and many believe modern society encourages drinking.


Fatal if not Arrested 

Alcoholics die, on average, about 12 years sooner than non-alcoholics. This figure does not include suicide, car wrecks, homicide and other accidental death. Nor does it take into account the mixing of drugs that often have a multiplier and/or additive effect.



Treatment for alcoholism includes elements of medicine, psychology and sometimes medications. The primary aim is restoration and maintenance of physical and psychological health and wellbeing through abstinence from alcohol. In this context treatment is both harm reduction and harm prevention.


Robin Foote; BA (Welfare), NCAC, RA.




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