Alcohol has become a major part of our culture, a fact reflected in how we socialize with each other, the advertising we see in the media, and even the sponsorships of major events. Most Americans take it for granted that they will drink – more than 90 percent of us do - and some start very early – at 14 or 15 years of age.
“We’ve really got a
job to do to educate parents and adolescents that this is dangerous
and that they may be setting a pattern that’s going to cause
enormous problems for them in the future,” said John Renner Jr.,
M.D., Associate Chief of Psychiatry at VA Boston Healthcare System and
Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of
Medicine. As a guest on the June edition of Physician Focus with the
Massachusetts Medical Society, Dr. Renner engaged in a wide-ranging
discussion on alcoholism and alcohol abuse, their causes and effects,
and how the conditions are treated, with
program host John Fromson, M.D.
“People need to look
at the consequences of their drinking and how many parts of their life
are affected by it,” says Dr. Renner, who is also Director of the BU
Medical Center Addiction Psychiatry Residency Program and the Chair of
the American Psychiatric Association Council on Addiction Psychiatry.
Dr. Renner was clear about the effects of excessive
drinking: It can lead to a host of health problems, affecting
the liver, heart, and brain. It’s
associated with dementia and gastrointestinal cancer, and in many
cases, occurs along with psychiatric disorders such as bipolar
disease, depression, or attention deficit disorder. Besides health
concerns, excessive drinkers also experience more divorce, problems in
relationships, and trouble with work and holding a job. And with
drinkers there’s a high rate of smoking, along with a “mixing
in” of other drugs such as painkillers or stimulants.
While recent research
has indicated that alcohol has some healthful effects, Dr. Renner
cautions that the benefits of moderate drinking – one to two drinks
daily - apply only to healthy people who have no medical conditions
and are not on medications.
The ill effects of
drinking are clear and well documented, but is alcoholism a disease? Yes, it is. “The old view,” says Dr. Renner, “is that
this is bad behavior, but we now have abundant evidence that
alcoholism is a biological condition, that it’s inherited and runs
That’s why, he says,
it’s particularly important that if alcohol problems are present in a
family, that the family be open about them, and that young people be
told that they have a high risk for alcoholism.
Dr. Renner acknowledges
that it’s hard for people to hold a mirror up to themselves and to
be honest about how difficult the problem is. “It takes time for people to accept the fact they have a
problem, time to decide they should get help, and even more time for
treatment,” he says. “The sad part of it all is that treatment
works and people don’t know that. They often avoid or delay
treatment because they think it won’t work.”
“Alcoholism is the
most common addiction in our culture," Dr. Renner says, "and we need to
pay attention to that. The earlier you get someone engaged in
treatment, the more likely it will be successful.”
Watch the accompanying video for the complete conversation,
which includes discussion on binge drinking, what it means to “hit
bottom,” how to approach someone with a drinking problem, and
treatments for the condition.