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Siding with Science: Addiction as a Disease

Addiction is a disease of the brain.

While this concept is still often questioned and can be difficult to accept, research is proving this fact, as well as the effective treatments and preventative measures based on that research.1

In a recent study by the Associated Press – NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 53 percent of the Americans surveyed believe that prescription drug addiction is a physical disease. While this is an improvement from an earlier study, it continues to show how nearly half of Americans view addiction as a character flaw, weakness, result of bad parenting or a lifestyle choice instead of being a medical condition.

While these beliefs are influenced by social stigmas, they also remain because people simply do not understand the biological and environmental causes of addiction.2

Addiction and the Brain

Brain engravingAddictions are complex, and every case is different. They stem from psychological and physiological effects and they develop into a disease of the brain.3

Addictive substances flood the brain with dopamine, a chemical that causes people to experience a sense of pleasure and well-being. Eventually, dopamine isn’t produced when a person takes the drug, but instead cells produce it in anticipation of the substance. These are fast releases of dopamine that create a craving for the substance.

This change in brain chemistry makes it very difficult to stop consuming addictive substances. It also makes it difficult to experience pleasure or the feeling of well-being without using the drug. Medical professionals often advise those recovering from addiction to change their social habits and surroundings because such reminders of their addictive behavior can trigger intense chemical reactions in the brain.

In a severe addiction, brain chemistry changes so radically that getting more of the drug becomes the brain’s primary focus. Rational decisions and the brain’s executive processes become impaired. This is why a person can be sincere in wanting to change addictive behavior but find himself unable to do so. Scientists also estimate that genetics play an important role accounting for 40 to 60 percent of addictions.4

In a severe addiction, brain chemistry changes so radically that getting more of the drug becomes the brain’s primary focus.

A New Law Offers Hope

While society may be behind in understanding that addiction is a disease, U.S. federal law has been more supportive. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) gives people with addiction the same rights as those with any other physical ailment, and it prohibits limitations on mental health and substance use disorder benefits that are unfair and unfavorable compared to other medical conditions.

MHPAEA is an important step toward addressing the misunderstanding and social stigma that comes with addiction disorders. This federal law indicates that addiction should be covered by insurance at the same level as any other medical disorder.

It is interesting to note that substance use and chemical dependency weren’t originally included as covered conditions in the original version of the Mental Health Parity Act.

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If a person with addiction had received treatment before 2008, he would have paid higher out-of-pocket expenses or may not have had a benefit for treatment at all.4

Hope for Change

Studies such as the one conducted by Associated Press – NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and laws like MHPAEA reflect actual human beings. They depict the impact of addiction on countless individuals, their families and communities.

For people dealing with addiction, they can feel constant defeat by how they are perceived by others as well as their own sense of failure for being unable to remain in sobriety. Communities often feel the far-reaching effects of a culture lacking in understanding and unable to offer comprehensive help.

Female friends locking armsThe good news is that more people are learning the truth about addiction every day, and the shift is occurring. As further news reports and publications about brain research and addiction are released, public perception is shifting. The changes in U.S. laws and healthcare will eventually offer more successful outcomes.

There’s hope that in the near future people with addiction will be met with compassion and support as well as comprehensive medical treatment that will help them heal and live free of substance abuse.

Change is coming, and it begins with each one of us.

By Cindy Coloma, Contributing Writer


1 Volkow, Nora D. M.D., et al. “Neurobiologic Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction.” The New England Journal of Medicine, Accessed May 14, 2018.

2Americans Recognize the Growing Problem of Opioid Addiction.” The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Accessed May 14, 2018.

3Is Addiction a Disease?”, Accessed May 14, 2018.

4The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA)” Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Accessed May 14, 2018.