It should not come as a surprise that each and every day, people die from the effects of chronic addiction to a drug or to alcohol. Regardless of whether the addiction relates to alcohol or drugs, addiction to substances kills thousands of Americans (of all ages) each year and touches millions of lives in some form or another.
Addiction is a mental disorder. It is a disorder which compels an individual to repeatedly use a substance or engage in an addictive behavior regardless of the potential for (or existence of) harmful consequences. The statistics related to addictions in the United States can be a challenge to read and digest as they are rather shocking. Below are just a few related to overall addiction, alcohol addiction and drug addiction.
- Almost 21 million Americans (of all ages) have at least one addiction. Of those 21 million Americans, only 10% or less will seek and receive treatment for it.
- Since 1990 the death rate related to drug overdose has tripled in number.
- Approximately 20% of Americans who have a mental health disorder (such as depression or an anxiety disorder) also have a co-occurring substance use disorder.
- More than 90% of people who have an addiction to alcohol or drugs started to use before the age of 18.
- Every year alcohol is the root cause of 5.3% or (1 out of every 20) deaths.
- Approximately 6% of Americans have an alcohol use disorder but only 7% of those who are addicted will ever receive treatment.
- Between 20 and 30% of people who take prescription opioids misuse them. Furthermore, 10% of those who misuse prescription opioids will become addicted to them.
- Approximately 2.1 million Americans have an opioid use disorder.
These statistics do not even touch on other drug addictions such as Methamphetamine, Heroin, Cocaine and inhalants.
When it comes to addiction, treatment often requires treating both physiological as well as psychological long-term effects. The longer a person suffers with addiction, the more stress and strain it puts on the individual in all ways including their body and mental health.
Below we have addressed a variety of long-term effects that can be sustained by various body systems as a result of long-term addiction.
Substance addiction is all too often intertwined with other mental health issues. It is not uncommon to see people with diagnosed mood or anxiety disorders also suffer with substance addiction. Statistics show these people are nearly twice as likely to abuse substances as those who do not have an underlying mental health condition. Additionally, the reverse is also true. People who suffer from a substance use disorder are approximately twice as likely to struggle with a mood or anxiety disorder. While there isn’t a clear explanation of which on causes the other there is a strong relationship.
The mental health related distress associated with substance abuse and drug abuse can range from mild to very serious. Yet at any level, the ongoing distress can have a profoundly negative impact on the life of an addicted individual. Some of the most common long-term mental health issues associated with substance addiction are discussed below.
There is a very clear link between long term substance use or abuse and depression as well as other mood disorders. It is thought that this relationship is attributed to preexisting depression that was diagnosed before the person began using. In many cases, the symptoms of depression led to drug abuse to alleviate the symptoms. In some other cases, the chronic abuse of substances may have caused changes in the brain that increased the presence of depressive symptoms. For those who use substances to alleviate symptoms the relief is short lived as it is generally only functional when the user is under the influence or high. As a result, the user will keep on using more and more frequently to assure the symptoms do not reappear. This circle of use can add additional challenges to the process of detox or recovery as many drugs have withdrawal symptoms that include depression and other mood disorders.
Substance addiction is also associated with anxiety and other panic disorders. As with depression, the cause is difficult to determine, and it can be different from person to person. One person may develop a pattern of abuse after using drugs (such as benzodiazepines like Xanax) to cope with their preexisting symptoms related to a disorder. Others may have long term abuse pattern and as a result develop anxiety problems due to their addiction and the symptoms it causes. There are also certain drugs such as cocaine which by their use alone can cause anxiety as a side effect of their use. Still, as with depression there are other drugs that can cause anxiety and panic disorders as a result intentional or unintentional withdrawal.
Some street drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, can cause feelings of paranoia. These feelings may increase over time with long-term use. Additionally, people who are struggling with addiction may feel as though they need to hide their use or lie about it to their loved ones. Their paranoia increases as a result of the fear of getting caught.
For some individuals, long-term drug use can significantly increase their risk of developing a mental disorder. As an example, there is some research related evidence that shows smoking marijuana during adolescence can increase a person’s risk of psychosis during adulthood. It is important to note this association may be most pronounced in those who are already have a predisposition for psychological issues. Substance addiction and mental illness are both disorders that develop due to a variety of different factors including genetic and environmental. Unfortunately, when someone develops a mental health condition as a result of substance use, it is not likely to go away without treatment.
Beyond the various mental health issues that can result from long-term drug addiction, there are a wide variety of issues that affect the physical health of the individual who is abusing substances over a sustained or long period of time. According to research done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and research organizations some of the long-term effects of drug abuse can affect the following:
The Kidneys are very important organs in the human body. The help to control our body functions by controlling the Acid-base balance in the blood, controlling the water balance in our bodies, helping to maintain electrolyte balance, filter toxins from our body and controlling blood pressure among other tasks. The kidneys can be damaged by long-term drug use in both direct and indirect ways. Abusing certain substances and lead to dehydration, muscle breakdown and increase body temperature; all of which lead to kidney damage over time. Kidney failure is not uncommon among those who abuse heroin, MDMA, Ketamine and some other drugs. When your kidneys fail, your body will begin to retain fluid and build up toxic waste. This can cause weakness, swelling, shortness of breath, lethargy and confusion. Over time and without successful treatment (dialysis) this can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and death.
There are many different drugs that have potential to impact the cardiovascular system can cause cardiovascular issues. These issues can range from increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure to abnormal cardiac rhythms and heart attack. Those who abuse injectable drugs are also at increased risk of collapsed veins and bacterial infections in their bloodstream or heart. These infections can be fatal. More often than not, the damage to the heart is irreversible. The drugs that can affect the cardiovascular system include cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy, cigarette smoking, fentanyl and alcohol.
The respiratory system can suffer damage related to inhaled substances such as marijuana and crack cocaine. It can also suffer damage from cigarette smoking. These are considered direct damage as something is being inhaled directly into the lungs. In addition to direct damage, there are drugs that slow a person’s breathing rate such as prescription opioids. This can cause serious complications for the user including sudden death from respiratory failure. A short list of drugs that can affect the respiratory system include cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, PCP, prescription opioids and tobacco.
The Brain and Nervous System:
The human brain is easily the most complex organ in the body, and it controls all human activity. You need your brain to drive, eat, breathe and to enjoy everyday activities. Think of a brain as a small, 3-pound computer except instead of chips and circuits, it has cells and neurons. Each neuron acts as a switch that controls the flow of information from the brain throughout the body. Different switches in the brain are responsible for coordinating and communicating different functions. These communications are sent along the spinal cord and through the nerves in the rest of the body. Drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive and process signals in the body. Some drugs mimic how neurons communicate thus allowing neurons to fire, but this results in abnormal messages being sent throughout the body. Drugs can also alter areas of the brain that are necessary for life-sustaining functions. These areas include:
- The basal ganglia-this area of the brain plays a role in positive motivation and pleasure. This is also called the brains reward system. Drugs can override this system and produce the same pleasurable euphoria through a drug “high” but over time with repeated exposure this system adapts to the drug and its effectiveness is diminished. As a result, the user needs to use more and more of the drug to obtain the same “high” and pleasurable feelings.
- The extended amygdala- this area of the brain plays a role in stressful feelings such as anxiety, irritability and stress. With increased drug use these feelings and emotions become increasingly sensitive to lack of the substance in the system. Eventually, the only way for a person to get relief from these feelings is to remain high.
- The prefrontal cortex-this part of the brain controls our ability to think, plan, make decisions and solve problems as well as control our impulsiveness. This is also the last part of the brain to mature which makes teens more vulnerable to the impacts of drug use. A person who chronically abuses substances can develop issues with impulse control.
Some other drugs can adversely impact parts of the brain necessary for maintaining life including the brain stem (which controls functions such as heart rate, breathing and sleeping). Drugs that can have a negative impact on the brain and nervous system include marijuana, heroin, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, ecstasy and hallucinogens.
The Gastrointestinal System:
The gastrointestinal system or digestive system is composed of several organs which include the mouth esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver and pancreas. The digestive system works daily to ensure the body receives the nutrients required to maintain health and sustain life. Some drugs can cause the user to develop nausea and vomiting. Others can cause tissue damage in the stomach, constipation, acid reflux, cancer, inflammation, anemia, and increase the chances of developing diabetes. Long-term drug use can also lead to the inability to absorb nutrients and decreased appetite.
The Liver is a vital part of the digestive or GI system and the results of addiction on the liver can be fatal. Liver failure is the most well-known consequence of alcoholism. However, liver failure can also occur with individuals who habitually use opioids, steroids, inhalants of DXM over many years. The liver is vital for clearing toxins from the bloodstream and long-term, chronic substance use can overwork the liver eventually leading to chronic inflammation, scarring, tissue necrosis, and even cancer. The liver may be significantly more at use when substances are abused in combination. While recovery from mild liver failure (or cirrhosis) is possible the chances are reduced based on the level of damage the organ has sustained. Only 50% of people with severe alcoholic cirrhosis survive beyond two years. Some substances that can affect the GI system include cocaine, anything inhaled, DXM, heroin, acid, ecstasy, nicotine, opioids, and PCP among others.
If you or someone you know has bee struggling with substance use for a long period of time, there may be severe damage to the body and brain occurring that are not outwardly visible. Addiction can impact nearly every aspect of an individual’s life and all the while they may not realize the extent of their problem. If you, or someone you know is struggling with long-term addiction a residential treatment program such as the Hills may be the best choice for treatment. Treatment for long-term addiction is challenging and maintaining sobriety after treatment is even more challenging than treatment itself. A program such as the Hills will not only help you with the challenge related to treatment and detox but also with the process of leaving rehab and returning to your day to day life stronger than before.