Lifetime Alcohol, Cannabis Use Disorders Highly Prevalent in U.S.

Posted on March 26th, 2014
Posted in Substance Abuse

Alcohol use disorder and cannabis use disorder are the diagnoses used to identify people affected, respectively, by problems with alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence (alcoholism) and abuse or addiction associated with the use of marijuana, hashish or hashish oil. In a study published in March 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two affiliated U.S. universities used information gathered from a large-scale, ongoing project called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to determine how many young adults in the U.S. have developed either of these conditions at some point in their lifetimes.

The Basics

Alcohol use disorder and cannabis use disorder are defined by terms set in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association. They both constitute specific forms of a more general condition called substance use disorder, which applies to any form of diagnosable abuse or addiction stemming from the use of alcohol or any type of drug or medication. A person affected by alcohol use disorder or cannabis use disorder has at least two out of 11 possible symptoms of problematic substance intake, including such things as recurring craving for the substance in question, uncontrolled use of the substance in question, heightened tolerance to the effect of the substance in question, the onset of withdrawal in the absence of a physically expected amount of the substance in question, a substance-related inability to meet ongoing obligations and the establishment of a behavioral routine that makes substance use, substance procurement and recovery from substance intake topmost priorities.

The National Longitudinal Study

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (commonly abbreviated as Add Health) is a long-term, federally funded research project designed to assess lifelong changes in the health of a nationally representative group of teenagers originally enrolled in middle school and high school. The study began in 1994 and continues up to the current day. Participants in Add Health periodically participate in detailed interviews that probe such health-related factors as socioeconomic status, physical welfare and mental/emotional welfare. The study also considers the influence of a range of environmental factors, including each participant’s family setting, community and neighborhood setting, peer relationships and intimate relationships. The most recent series of Add Health interviews were conducted in 2008 and 2009. At that time, all but 52 of the project’s 15,500 participants ranged in age from 24 to 32.

How Many Are Affected?

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of Colorado, Denver and the University of Colorado, Boulder used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to identify young adults who have experienced symptoms that would qualify them for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse or alcoholism, or for a diagnosis of cannabis abuse or addiction. Since Add Health uses a nationally representative pool of participants, information gathered from these participants likely closely reflects larger trends in the general, young-adult population. In addition to determining rates for alcohol-related problems and cannabis-related problems, the researchers examined the underlying demographic factors that make any given young adult more or less likely to experience these problems.

After completing their assessment, the researchers concluded that 11.8 percent of U.S. adults between the ages of 24 and 32 have qualified for an alcohol abuse diagnosis at some point their lifetimes; an additional 13.2 percent have qualified for an alcoholism diagnosis. The researchers also concluded that 3.9 percent of all U.S. adults between the ages of 24 and 32 have qualified for a cannabis abuse diagnosis at some point in their lifetimes; another 8.3 percent have qualified for a cannabis addiction diagnosis. The demographic factors most closely associated with alcohol abuse in the target age group are male gender, African-American ancestry and a middle-class level of income. Factors associated with alcoholism include male gender, African-American ancestry, having a lifetime single status and living in any part of the U.S. except the West. The single identified demographic factor associated with cannabis abuse and addiction is male gender.

Significance and Considerations

Prior to 2013, the American Psychiatric Association officially viewed substance abuse and substance addiction as separately diagnosable issues. The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence conducted their work when the old definitions for these conditions were still in effect. The current criteria used to define alcohol use disorder and cannabis use disorder closely resemble the outdated, separate criteria used respectively for alcohol abuse, alcoholism, cannabis abuse and cannabis addiction. However, minor differences between the old and new criteria may alter details of the study’s findings to some degree.

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