Co-occurring Disease Rates in Addicts

It has become common knowledge that addiction runs rampant among the mentally ill population, with some 50 percent of those with severe mental illness being substance abusers, but what about those with physical ailments?[1] Are illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease, organic and merely a matter of happenstance or genetic lottery, or do they stem from addiction in some way? The answer may surprise you.

From one patient to the next, individual circumstances vary. One person may suffer from lung cancer and be a long-time marijuana and cigarette smoker. However, there are plenty of smokers who never get lung cancer, too, as well as many people who have this form of cancer and have never smoked anything. Pinpointing the direct cause of an illness can be trickier than it seems.

Alcoholic Liver Disease

Mostly known to affect alcohol abusers, cirrhosis of the liver is a common form of alcoholic liver disease, of which there are several types. Approximately 17 million Americans meet the criteria for alcohol dependence.[2] Around 10 to 15 percent of alcoholics end up with cirrhosis.[3] Wine is traditionally known to be of less risk at influencing cirrhosis than beer or hard liquor. That being said, how much someone drinks and how often is a far greater contributing cause.

Cirrhosis sufferers who quit drinking have a 90 percent five-year survival rate, compared to only 70 percent among those who continue to drink alcohol.[4] Even more troubling is that 70 percent of all Americans with cancer of the liver had cirrhosis first.[5]

Approximately 20 percent of heavy drinkers and alcohol dependents develop fatty liver disease.[6] This condition is reversible if alcohol abuse is ceased early enough, but in lieu of such measures it often leads to death.

Alcoholic hepatitis is also a major life risk, with half of all severe cases ending in death.[7] That being said, approximately 40 percent of people diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis will end up developing cirrhosis, too, if they fail to stop drinking heavily.[8]


A lot of substance abusers end up with some form of cancer, but that can be said for others in the general public, too. More importantly, new cases of lung cancer affected around 225,000 people in 2012, and a reported 80 to 90 percent of them were previous or current smokers.[9]

Tobacco is a contributing factor in 11 to 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths.[10] Marijuana has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer by eight percent for every year of smoking it.[11]

While many illnesses and diseases can stem from substance abuse, some people are led to drugs and alcohol by an illness. This situation is commonly seen in cancer patients, many of which grow dependent on marijuana or opioid painkillers during treatment when trying to manage pain from treatment like chemotherapy. Opioid screenings in cancer patients in one study turned up abnormal results in 45.65 percent of tested patients.[12] Sometimes it’s merely the depression and stress of coping with a potentially terminal illness that leads to drug abuse, too.

Heart Health

Cardiac troubles aren’t uncommon in drug and alcohol abusers. When it comes to deaths stemming from heart disease, tobacco is the cause in 30 percent of cases.[13] Alcohol and drugs are major contributors to both heart attack and stroke. High blood pressure is a common issue among many substance abusers, especially those using stimulants like cocaine, tobacco products, or alcohol.
Alcohol abuse specifically is known to increase triglycerides. Left untreated and with persistent substance abuse, high blood pressure can not only lead to cardiac arrest, but also to stroke. In 2005, more than half of young Americans who suffered a stroke were current smokers, and 13 percent had used alcohol or drugs within 24 hours prior to the stroke.[14]

A study on the effects of effects of alcohol and drugs on women found that “women between ages 30 and 64 who consumed 15–21 units of alcohol per week had an increased risk of hypertension compared with those who drank 14 or fewer units; those who drank 1–7 units per week had an overall decrease in 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease compared with those who drank more.”[15]

Infectious Diseases

Infectious diseases are a common ailment among substance abusers. Chronic hepatitis C affects 3.9 million American people.[16] Only around 15 to 25 percent of HCV-infected parties clear the infection on their own.[17] Over a period of three decades living with HCV, 13 to 46 percent of men and 1 to 29 percent of women developed cirrhosis, too.[18] Individuals with HCV have a 16 percent chance of developing cirrhosis after 20 years, whereas those with both HCV and HIV have a 21 percent chance.[19] Both viruses are prominent in the substance abuse community among injection drug users.

In one study, 64.7 percent of substance abusers who had been injecting drugs for no more than a year already had hepatitis C, and 76.5 percent of those injecting for less than six years did.[20] In 2010, eight percent of all new HIV infections were contracted through injection drug use.[21] Around one-third of all HIV/AIDS cases are linked to injection drug use.[22]

Alzheimer’s Disease

Even Alzheimer’s disease has links to the substance abuse. Nearly half of the participants in one study with Alzheimer’s and 40 percent of the control subjects had used benzodiazepines at some point in time.[23] Thus, this correlated with a 51 percent increased likelihood of an eventual Alzheimer’s diagnosis sometime after benzo use. The study didn’t discriminate against typical use, misuse and abuse, but all methods of use could be applied to the data. Alcohol use is also linked to the development of Alzheimer’s, even in moderate use cases.

A Note About Mental Illness

Individuals with mental health disorders are also more likely to have physical health problems, too. Moreover, approximately 53 percent of all drug addicts and 37 percent of alcoholics also have a mental health disorder.[24] This can make for a complex case of health ailments in the substance-abusing, mentally ill person.Many individuals with mental health issues live a shortened lifespan, as well. Around 60 percent of excess mortality cases among the severely mentally ill population are due to physical illnesses.[25] Those with severe mental health disorders — such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — live

approximately 13 to 30 years fewer than the general population.[26]Likewise, many addicts end up on the streets after periods of prolonged drug or alcohol abuse, as do the mentally ill. This is an important link to their health, because homeless persons who are suffering from mental health disorders have a 24.5 percent risk of cardiac arrest, stroke, or sudden cardiac death past the age of 30.[27] Substance-induced illnesses are a whole other realm of sickness that are directly caused by substance abuse and generally resolve when drug or alcohol use is stopped.

Life Expectancy

Substance abuse alone shortens life expectancy by alarming rates, such as:

  • Smoking a pack of cigarettes shaves about 4.6 hours off your life.
  • A typical night out drinking beer can cost you 14.1 hours.
  • One day of methamphetamine use comes at the tune of about 58.8 hours.
  • Heroin addicts lose around 68.4 hours for every day of typical drug use.[28]


Help Is Here

Whether you’ve found yourself at rock bottom following a heart attack or stroke, or you’re battling an addiction while trying to fight cancer, we can help. Detoxing from substance abuse can be a difficult experience. It should never be attempted on your own when pre-existing physical illness or disease is present. Certain measures can be taken to make you more comfortable during the withdrawal process when detoxing at a treatment facility.
After you complete withdrawal, follow-up care is strongly recommended to improve your odds against relapse. Among all addicts who complete treatment, 40 to 60 percent will relapse in the following year.[29] The odds are still in favor of those who actually get help. Now is the time to safeguard yourself and make sure you give yourself the best chance at starting a new healthy life in recovery.


[1] “Substance Abuse and Co-occurring Disorders.” (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[2] “Alcoholism.” (n.d.). EMedicine Health. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[3] Mann, R.E., Smart, R.G. & Govoni, R. (n.d.). “The Epidemiology of Alcoholic Liver Disease.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Iliades, C. (n.d.) “Cirrhosis and Liver Cancer.” Everyday Health. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[6] Mann, R.E., Smart, R.G. & Govoni, R. (n.d.). “The Epidemiology of Alcoholic Liver Disease.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Vallieres, E. (n.d.). “Marijuana smoking and the risk of lung cancer: time for pause.” Accessed May 15, 2014.

[10] “Magnitude.” (n.d.). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[11] Aldington, S., Harwood, M., Cox, B., Weatherall, M., Beckert, L., Hansell, A., Pritchard, A., Robinson, G. & Beasley, R. (2008 August 14). “Cannabis Use and Risk of Lung Cancer: A Case-Control Study.” European Respiratory Journal. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[12] Barclay, J.S., Owens, J.E. & Blackhall, L.J. (2014 July 22). “Screening for substance abuse risk in cancer patients using the Opioid Risk Tool and urine drug screening.” Support Care Center. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Pittman, G. (2012 November 29). “Drug, alcohol abuse tied to early-life strokes.” Chicago Tribune. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[15] “Chapter 3: Physiological Effects of Alcohol, Drugs, and Tobacco on Women.” (n.d.). Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[16] Heidelbaugh, J.J. & Bruderly, M. (2006 September 1). “Cirrhosis and Chronic Liver Failure: Part I. Diagnosis and Evaluation.” American Family Physician. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[17] Jaret, P. (n.d.). “What Can I Expect Over Time With Hepatitis C?” Health Day. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Facts About Drug Abuse and Hepatitis.” (n.d.). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[21] “Who is at Risk for HIV Infection and Which Populations Are Most Affected?” (n.d.). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[22] “Magnitude.” (n.d.). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[23] Billioti de Gage, S., Moride, Y., Ducruet, T., Kurth, T., Verdoux, H., Tournier, M., Pariente, A. & Begaud, B. (2014). “Benzodiazepine use and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease: case-control study.” BMJ. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[24] “Substance Abuse and Co-occurring Disorders.” (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[25] De Hert, M., Correll, C.U., Bobes, J., Cetkovich-Bakmas, M., Cohen, D., Asai, I., Detraux, J., Gautam, S., Moller, H., Ndetei, D.M., Newcomer, J.W., Uwakwe, R. & Leucht, S. (2011 February 10). “Physical illness in patients with severe mental disorders. I. Prevalence, impact of medications and disparities in health care.” World Psychiatry. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Preidt, R. (2015 February 24). “Mental Illness, Homelessness Linked to Heart Disease in Study.” U.S. News. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[28] Dizon, J. (October 17). “Your addiction is costing you your life.” Tech Times. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[29] “Addiction Science: From Molecules to Managed Care.” (July 2008). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2015.

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