Breakthrough Patient Recruitment

: Alcohol Use Disorders: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Alcohol Use Disorders: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Clinical Research Assistant

"Well, your blood pressure checks out. Your BMI is within a healthy range. Your lab work came back normal. Vision's good. Breathing's fine. You seem to be in great shape. Since you don't have any questions, have a great day, and I'll see you again next year." These are wonderful things to hear after an annual physical exam. Having no questions and in light of your doctor's lack of concern, you can walk away feeling healthy and fortunate.

 

But what about those illnesses that can't yet be diagnosed by a blood pressure cuff or predicted by a blood draw? What about those mental disorders that haven't begun to show symptoms or have not yet developed? Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) and the potential for AUDs can easily be overlooked when no physical side effects have yet manifested.

 

We rely so heavily on our clinicians to catch and treat our ailments. It's so difficult to catch an illness before it causes visible problems and even more difficult to predict who will develop such illnesses. Now to be fair, a patient's drinking pattern is assessed via questionnaires during an initial physician's visit. And I assume that a reported pattern of alcohol misuse would be addressed during the visit. However, those questions are buried within an excessive amount of intake paperwork, are based on personal report, and only attempt to catch current alcohol abuse not necessarily predisposition for abuse. Not to mention, the validity of these self-reported answers is questionable.

 

Speaking from personal experience, I don't rush to read about an illness that I don't have or think I'll ever get. But wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to wait until an AUD started to affect our health, personal relationships, and finances to address the issue? And wouldn't it be wonderful if we were more aware of AUDs, their effects, and who's at risk so we knew the right questions to ask. Prevention is the best way to protect against an illness. Vaccines help prevent diseases. Healthy diets, exercise, and vitamins help build immunity and prevent health problems. But there seems to be another step that comes before prevention. We must first know why and how to prevent something. 

 

The "why" is pretty simple given that alcohol use has many confirmed negative health effects. AUDs can impede brain function; lead to numerous heart, liver, and pancreas problems; cause cancer; and diminish the immune system. AUDs can also affect personal relationships, finances, employment, psychological health, and appearance.

 

The "how" is not so black and white because there is no known cause for AUDs--yet. There are correlations between AUDs and genetic, psychological, social, and environmental factors, but so far there is no proven causation. My own suspected correlated variable is lack of awareness. If we gain awareness and educate ourselves on contributing factors, we can learn ways to administer the prevention by adopting behaviors such as discussing the risks with your children; abstaining or moderating your drinking habits, especially if you have a family history of alcohol abuse or if your social or cultural environment fosters such behavior.

 

Although early intervention is the best way to prevent AUDs, there is no guarantee that an intervention will be implemented. In some circumstances, it may be too late. But it is not too late to educate oneself on signs and symptoms and to evaluate one's drinking patterns to address an AUD before it progresses.

 

It is easy to overlook predispositions for disorders and diseases. And it is dangerous to view our physicians as all-knowing beings. Before an illness manifests, physicians can only make judgments on what they see and what we tell them. We in turn can only ask questions and take proactive measures based on what we know. It is our responsibility to be aware of the effects and likelihood of developing an AUD and to empower ourselves with the knowledge of why and how to prevent or recognize risky drinking behaviors. We owe it to ourselves to learn and ask questions about AUDs before a blood pressure cuff or blood draw learns it for us.

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