Understanding the Disease Model of Addiction

This may be an ugly truth, but society used to view addicts as bad people. Instead of helping them get medical treatment, people suffering from addiction were seen as morally bankrupt or generally self-interested.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since those days.

Today, most of us realize that addiction is a disease that requires medical attention and care.

Still, there are many non-believers. This is likely because people once had made a choice to use an addictive substance.

Anyone can choose not to use; that’s true. But with repeated drug or alcohol abuse, the brain changes. Willpower becomes impaired. The person loses control. Using becomes a necessity instead of a choice.

Is Addiction a Real Disease?

Most medical associations define addiction as a disease, including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Here’s why: Addiction is characterized by an obsession to use drugs or drink that has biological, genetic and neurological roots.

The disease model of addiction states that addiction is a relapsing brain disorder characterized by the altered structure and functioning of the brain.

Addiction fits the traditional disease model, which only requires that an abnormal condition causes discomfort, dysfunction or distress. The abnormal functioning of the brain that you’ll find with addiction is what leads it to be characterized as a disease.

Biological Roots of Addiction

Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that gender and ethnicity play a large role in a person’s propensity for addiction.

For example, only about four percent of the Asian population uses illicit drugs while 13.4 percent of American Indians and Alaska natives use drugs.

The same survey found that males are nearly two times as likely to use drugs as females.

Genetic Factors Involved in Addiction

Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s likelihood to use alcohol or drugs. But like so many other diseases, addiction is a very complex issue. Multiple genes and environmental factors can make a person more susceptible to using drugs. Just because you have a gene involved in addiction doesn’t mean you’ll become an addict. Also, all addicts do not share a common “addiction gene.” This is what makes genetics such a complex issue.

Neurological Causes of Addiction

Most drugs release high levels of “feel good” chemicals in the brain. These are the same chemicals that are activated when the basic needs of hunger, thirst, and sex are met. After using for some time, the brain associates the substance with the reward of feeling good, if only temporarily. This can cause the brain to release a continual flow of chemicals, which almost always results in the addict needing the drug to feel normal.

Is Addiction a Chronic Disease?

For a disease to be chronic, it must be a long-lasting disease that can be controlled but not cured.

For some addicts, addiction is a chronic disease. These people will spend their lives in and out of hospitals or rehabs.

Fortunately, even the most severe and chronic forms of addiction can be manageable and reversible.

The good news is that even the most severe, chronic form of the disorder can be manageable and reversible, usually with long-term treatment and continued monitoring and support for recovery.

Why Do Some People Think Addiction Isn’t a Disease?

Because addiction always begins with a choice, some people believe that it cannot be a disease. This type of logic assumes that the addict caused their own affliction.

To see why this reasoning doesn’t make sense, let’s take a look at type 2 diabetes. Genetics and lifestyle are the most important factors in whether a person develops this disease. Sound familiar?

Most people wouldn’t argue that type 2 diabetes is a disease yet it is most often caused by lifestyle choices, including excess sugar consumption. Studies have proven that sugar is addictive, but it would be cruel to say that anyone was asking for diabetes by eating their first cupcake.   

Type 2 diabetes is more complex than a decision to consume sugar, but so is substance abuse.

A person may choose to consume alcohol or heroin, but before too long, addiction changes the brain, and the person loses their ability to choose.

Choice does not determine whether something is a disease.

Addiction is a complex disease that affects the body and brain, and it can have severe health and social consequences. Substance abuse disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, memory, and judgment.

If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, time is of the essence. The longer you live with addiction, the more difficult it will be to recover. As you fall deeper into the throes of substance abuse, your brain and body come to rely on the drug to function.

Talk to a rehabilitation counselor to determine the next best steps for you.