The effects of drug dependence on social systems has helped shape the
generally held view that drug dependence is primarily a social problem, not
a health problem. In turn, medical approaches to prevention and treatment
are lacking. We examined evidence that drug (including alcohol) dependence
is a chronic medical illness. A literature review compared the diagnoses,
heritability, etiology (genetic and environmental factors), pathophysiology,
and response to treatments (adherence and relapse) of drug dependence vs type
2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and asthma. Genetic heritability, personal
choice, and environmental factors are comparably involved in the etiology
and course of all of these disorders. Drug dependence produces significant
and lasting changes in brain chemistry and function. Effective medications
are available for treating nicotine, alcohol, and opiate dependence but not
stimulant or marijuana dependence. Medication adherence and relapse rates
are similar across these illnesses. Drug dependence generally has been treated
as if it were an acute illness. Review results suggest that long-term care
strategies of medication management and continued monitoring produce lasting
benefits. Drug dependence should be insured, treated, and evaluated like other
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