Alcoholism, chronic and usually progressive illness involving the excessive inappropriate ingestion of ethyl alcohol, whether in the form of familiar alcoholic beverages or as a constituent of other substances. Alcoholism is thought to arise from a combination of a wide range of physiological, psychological, social, and genetic factors. It is characterized by an emotional and often physical dependence on alcohol, and it frequently leads to brain damage or early death.
Some 10 percent of the adult drinkers in the United States are considered alcoholics or at least they experience drinking problems to some degree. More males than females are affected, but drinking among the young and among women is increasing. Consumption of alcohol is apparently on the rise in the United States, countries of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and many European nations. This is paralleled by growing evidence of increasing numbers of alcohol-related problems in other nations, including the Third World.
Alcoholism, as opposed to merely excessive or irresponsible drinking, has been variously thought of as a symptom of psychological or social stress or as a learned, maladaptive coping behavior. More recently, and probably more accurately, it has come to be viewed as a complex disease entity in its own right. Alcoholism usually develops over a period of years. Early and subtle symptoms include placing excessive importance on the availability of alcohol. Ensuring this availability strongly influences the person's choice of associates or activities. Alcohol comes to be used more as a mood-changing drug than as a foodstuff or beverage served as a part of social custom or religious ritual.
Initially, the alcoholic may demonstrate a high tolerance to alcohol, consuming more and showing less adverse effects than others. Subsequently, however, the person begins to drink against his or her own best...