Whether it's binge drinking or addiction to alcohol, Americans have a real problem with the bottle.
So says new research released Monday, which found that nearly one out of three Americans can expect to have a problem with alcohol at some time during their lives.
"We found that 30.3 percent of the U.S. population at some time in their lives -- though maybe not currently -- has had an alcohol use disorder," said study author Bridget Grant of the Division of Biometry and Epidemiology at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
But the nature of this problem can vary widely -- from a sustained streak of binge drinking behavior all the way to serious physiological addiction to alcohol.
The findings, generated from face-to-face interviews with more than 43,000 U.S. adults, appear in the July issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.
To find out whether subjects had experienced problems with alcohol, interviewers questioned them looking for the symptoms of alcohol abuse and dependence listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition.
What researchers found was that 17.8 percent of those interviewed reported that they had abused alcohol at one time or another, and 12.5 percent reported alcohol dependence.
But perhaps most sobering was the fact that few with alcohol problems ever reached out for help.
"What we found was that very few people who have lifetime disorders ever seek treatment," Grant says, adding that only 24 percent of those suffering from alcohol dependency seek help. The percentage of those seeking treatment for alcohol abuse is even lower, at 7 percent.
"This is a big problem in our society, and every time we write a paper it becomes more clear," says Dr. James C. Garbutt, medical director of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"Nearly 100,000 people die every year of alcohol-related causes. Alcohol carries a $200 billion or more cost to society. These are huge statistics."
Before anyone can meaningfully say how many Americans experience problems with alcohol, it is first necessary to define exactly what constitutes a problem.
After all, unlike illicit drugs, alcoholic beverages are both legal and socially accepted.
In the current study, Grant and her fellow researchers broke down those with alcohol problems into two categories: those who abused alcohol, and those who experienced dependency.
Questions related to alcohol abuse -- which normally involves periods of heavy drinking or numerous binge drinking episodes -- centered on problems with work or family due to alcohol, or even a tendency to drink and drive. Respondents experiencing alcohol abuse accounted for more than half of those reporting alcohol problems in the study, or 17.8 percent of the total number of subjects.
On the other side of the spectrum is alcohol dependence -- a more serious diagnosis that suggests a physiological addiction to alcohol. Those who reported experiencing such effects as tolerance to alcohol, unsuccessful attempts to cut back on their consumption or excessive time lost due to alcohol fell into this category, which accounted for 12.5 percent of all of those interviewed.