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Top Substance Abuse Research of 2011

New Link to Breast Cancer Risk

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Updated December 15, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The top substance abuse-related scientific research studies of 2011 revealed a new risk for developing breast cancer; a link to mental illness and alcohol dependence; the average life of an addiction; more negative effects of binge drinking; and another way that alcohol consumption affects women more than men.

1. Moderate Drinking Linked to Breast Cancer Risk

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Compared to women who have never consumed alcohol, women who drink moderately have a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer. A Harvard Medical School study of more than 100,000 women was the first to find a link between breast cancer and moderate drinking. Heavy drinking has long since been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

2. Heavy Meth, Marijuana Users Risk Schizophrenia

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A large-scale study of 42,412 hospital patients found that heavy methamphetamine and marijuana users are nine times more likely to develop schizophrenia, compared to patients with no substance-abuse history. Use of meth and marijuana was linked to three times the risk of developing schizophrenia than with users cocaine, opioids and alcohol abuse.

3. Alcohol Dependence More Likely Among Mentally Ill

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A nationwide government survey found that adults with mental disorders are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than the population at large. The more severe the mental illness, the greater the risk of becoming an alcoholic. In the United States, 9.6 percent of adults with mental health disorders are alcohol dependent.

4. The Average Length of an Addiction's "Lifetime"

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The time from when an addiction begins until it gets bad enough for the person to decide to get help can vary widely, depending on the addiction. Years may go by in all cases. According to a government survey, addiction to alcohol lasts the longest and addiction to prescription drugs lasts the shortest time.

5. Binge Drinking Affects Verbal Learning Skills

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Binge drinkers - those who drink five or more drinks per session - run the risk of affecting their ability to remember new verbal information. Research shows binge drinking affects their verbal declarative memory. Interestingly, the study found no such impairment of visual-learning skills.

6. Science Discovers How Alcoholic Blackouts Happen

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Having a blackout is the result of more than just killing a few brain cells. Scientists have found that a chemical reaction in the brain actually blocks its ability to learn and form new memories when you have had too much to drink. The brain still processes the information, but it it not capable of forming memories of it.

7. Alcohol Disrupts Women's Sleep More Than Men's Sleep

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It is known that alcohol consumption can cause you to get fewer hours of sleep by disrupting your sleep later in the night. Now, scientists have found this sleep disturbance is more pronounced for women than it is for men. The way women metabolize alcohol is believed to be the cause.

8. Doctors Lax in Monitoring Prescription Drug Users

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A two-year study of primary-care physicians revealed that many of them do not take the steps necessary to monitor their patients on powerful painkillers to see if they are developing problems. Even patients who would be considered high risk for developing addictions are not properly monitored, researchers found.

9. Study Shows How A.A. Helps People Stay Sober

Harvard Medical School researchers found that by increasing the spirituality of members, Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) can help members reduce the frequency and intensity of alcohol abuse. They also found that A.A. was effective for non-spiritual members, including agnostics and atheists.

10. Helping Others Enhances Your Own Recovery

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A study at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine reviewed several published research papers that supports the idea that helping others helps alcoholics and addicts become and stay sober. The scientists refer to it as the "helper therapy principle" - when someone helps another person with a similar condition they also help themselves.

11. Heavy Drinking Increases Risk of Atrial Fibrillation

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A review of 14 research studies found that binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk of atrial fibrillation. But members of the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research could not agree on whether moderate drinking is linked to atrial fibrillation. Some say it does, others say it doesn't.

12. Drinking with Kids Can Backfire on Parents

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Some parents believe that if they let their children begin drinking at home they will more likely become responsible drinkers. But a study of 1,900 teenagers found that kids who are allowed to drink, even with adult supervision, are more likely than peers who do not drink early in life to develop alcohol-related problems.
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