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Chronic disease and recovery

In a 2019 article, Medical News Today published that more than a third of people who are “recovering from addiction continue to experience chronic physical disease.”

Extreme and extended use of alcohol and other substances has the potential to lead to a host of physical and mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, diabetes, liver disease and heart disease. These conditions may appear during use and remain in recovery, or they may make a first-time appearance during recovery and stay long-term. While it’s not definite that a recovering addict will become diagnosed with a serious health condition, it is a possibility, leaving many to worry about the state of their health even after overcoming addiction.

Brad, a 55-year-old recovering alcoholic, was diagnosed with diabetes shortly after receiving treatment for his alcohol abuse.

“Diabetes runs in the family, so in that sense, I wasn’t surprised I ended up with it,” he says today matter-of-factly. “I thought I’d already been through hell and back trying to ‘beat the bottle,’ as they say.

“I’d already changed my lifestyle once, and having to do it again, this time for diabetes… let’s just say it’s a shock I didn’t end up with clinical depression too.”

Brad isn’t wrong to be surprised; the burden of an added physical ailment, especially for those who have had success resolving a long-standing substance abuse problem, is particularly difficult to bear. Many who are diagnosed with another chronic disease, like Brad, find themselves falling into despair over the diagnosis, and yes, are often plagued with depression and anxiety too.

In 2017, 2,000 American adults recovering from substance abuse were studied for a National Recovery Survey. 37% of the group had received a diagnosis of any of the following: HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, liver disease, hepatitis C, cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The study found that diabetes, heart disease, hepatitis C and COPD were among the most common diagnoses in people in recovery.

Here’s a deeper breakdown of most commonly associated types of substances and diagnoses: 

  • HIV and sexually transmitted diseases were more common in those addicted to stimulants than those addicted to alcohol
  • Tuberculosis and COPD were equally common in all groups
  • Hepatitis C was most common in those addicted to opioids and stimulants
  • Diabetes was least common for those addicted to cannabis
  • Heart disease was least common in the opioid group
  • An increased risk of hepatis C and HIV appeared in those addicted to injected substances

The study found that the risk of having two or more chronic ailments increased by “four to seven percent, depending on factors such as using an additional substance 10 or more times, older age at the development of the disease, and recovering from addiction later in life.” The study also found that younger people fare better – a younger age, social stability and access to economic resources resulted in fewer or no associations with post-recovery physical diseases. Females as well reported greater changes of a clean bill of health in sobriety.

Experts agree that when intervention for addicts is made earlier, and in a more assertive manner, those addicted to alcohol or other substances will have a better chance at disease prevention. Addiction recovery professionals worldwide are working on ways to integrate addiction treatment to primary health care, so that those relationships between physical disease and addiction can not only be better understood, but better treated. 

“If I’d known my alcoholism was going to a contributor to (diabetes), would I have been more eager to stop earlier?” muses Brad. “Hard to say. But I do know that if I can serve up a warning to anyone out there who’s even just considering getting help for addiction, I’ll do it.

“The longer you’re in it, the harder it is to get out. And you don’t want to deal with all this stuff after you’ve already been through hell and back.”

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