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Is Addiction a Disease?

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Addiction is a complex disease that can alter a brain’s normal function. While the term ‘disease’ is often debated, countless factors affect a person’s likelihood and severity of the addiction. The good news is that with preventative measures and structured treatment, people can avoid drug abuse and get the help they need to regain control of their lives.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

Drugs mimic the brain’s natural reward mechanisms, tricking it into releasing dopamine, the pleasure chemical. Over time, the stimulating effects diminish, prompting a person to use more frequently and in greater dosages, creating tolerance. Once a person becomes tolerant, recovery becomes much more complex and withdrawal symptoms more severe, as the brain has become conditioned to deem the drug necessary for normal function.

Different classes of drugs affect the brain in different ways. For example:

  • Heroin and marijuana interfere with the brain’s regular communication channels.
  • Methamphetamines send the brain’s reward center into overdrive, leading to intense positive emotions followed by an intense crash.
  • Even over-the-counter cough medicines can cause changes in brain circuits if abused.

Over time, drugs can change a person’s way of thinking, judging, and reacting. For example, drugs can block glutamate transmitters in the brain, affecting learning. MRI scans show significant chemical differences between the brains of addicted and non-addicted individuals. These imbalances can rewire the brain to prioritize drug use over all else. Thus, addiction can be seen as a preventable brain disease.

What Factors Influence the Risk of Developing Addiction?

Many factors play a role in determining whether someone will become addicted to a substance. Certain drugs, such as methamphetamines, have more addictive potential than others. The age when a person first starts using and the dosage of the substance are also significant risk factors.

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The three major risk factors for addiction include:

Genetics: DNA plays a significant role in a person’s risk of developing an addiction. People with a family history of addiction are more likely to become addicted. Conversely, recent studies have revealed specific genes that provide a degree of resistance to the addictive effects of drugs.

These genetic differences explain why two people of the same age, gender, and ethnicity can abuse the same substance and become addicted while the other does not. Gender, ethnicity, and co-occurring disorders can also alter a person’s risk of developing an addiction.

Lifestyle/Environment: Environmental factors are just as important, if not more, than genetic factors in determining addiction risk. A person’s physical fitness, socioeconomic status, and relationships with friends and family can skew risk in either direction. Enabling environmental factors to include the history of sexual abuse, peer pressure, availability of drugs, and parental influences.

Age: The earlier a person starts abusing drugs, the more likely they will develop an addiction. The risk is especially high for adolescents whose brains have not fully developed judgment, critical thinking, and control skills.

How Can I Prevent My Loved One from Developing a Drug Addiction?

Substance addiction is preventable. Aside from genetics, parents and role models can influence a person’s environmental and developmental factors. Parents and teachers should educate children about the risks of drug abuse and give them the tools to make sound decisions.

Though drug abuse is often glorified in movies and music, adolescents who understand the risks are less likely to be influenced by these mediums. Community programs, health organizations, and everyday people can help spread the message and prevent substance addiction.

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  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse, DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction,, November 2012,

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