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Addiction affliction

April 8, 2010

Most people consider Germany the land of bratwurst and beer, but continued high consumption of alcohol has many worried. Extreme addiction to medication is also troubling, especially among seniors, a new study says.

Two young men in front of shelves full of spirits
Binge-drinking has been a growing problem among youth in recent years in GermanyImage: AP

Some 1.9 million older people "have a problem with their medication consumption," explained Armin Koeppe, project director at the German Center for Addiction Issues (DHS), which just released a study in Berlin entitled "Yearbook Addiction 2010." The center said research on alcohol consumption in Germany showed that it was "stable, but at a high level."

"What we've also really noticed in recent years is a growing number of young and old people seeking professional help for their addiction," Stefan Passia, head of the addiction counseling department at a social work agency run by the Protestant Church in the Duesseldorf region, told Deutsche Welle.

"That has to do with both an increasing problem with addiction, but also with more awareness about the issue," he added.

Two people holding mugs of beer
Beer consumption is actually declining in GermanyImage: Bilderbox

According to the DHS study, which is based on statistics from 2008, 1.7 to 2.8 million Germans over the age of 60 have "a problematic use of psychotropic drugs or pain-killers or can be described as addicted." The DHS estimated that more than one in four nursing-home residents over the age of 70 is addicted to psychotropic drugs. Women are particularly at risk.

Rise in addition among older people

The center stressed that as the number of "over-80-year-olds" increases in Germany, so does the potential for addiction to sleeping pills and pain-killers, which are often prescribed for this age group. Though sleep disturbances are quite normal in old age, "what older people don't know is that medication can quickly lead to dependence," Koeppe said.

Furthermore, sedation from medication frequently leads to falls among older people, the center pointed out, pushing up medical costs and the need for long-term care.

With regard to alcohol, the World Health Organization said that Germany ranks fifth in the world - behind Luxembourg, Ireland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - in the amount consumed. The DHS study showed that Germans drink an average of nearly 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of pure alcohol each year - that's the equivalent of around 610 cans of beer. Overall beer consumption dropped in 2008, however, with imbibers showing a preference for wine and sparkling wine.

Woman holding spoonful of pills to her mouth
Addiction can happen quicker than expected, experts sayImage: Bilderbox

An increasing number of Germans - mainly young people and seniors - are drinking to the point of unconsciousness, the DHS study said. In 2008, some 109,000 people were taken to the hospital for extreme intoxication, double the number from the year 2000.

Though alcohol consumption in general has fallen slightly overall - by 0.5 liters since 2000, but only by 0.1 liters since 2005 - it's still "way too high," said Raphael Gassmann, managing director at DHS's headquarters in Hamm.

Alcohol can lead to violence

DHS also pointed out a strong link between alcohol consumption and violence. "Three out of 10 violent crimes - such as assault and battery, manslaughter or rape - are carried out under the influence of alcohol," Christina Rummel, DHS project director, told AFP news agency. She said that women seldom become violent under the influence, but instead try to cope with violent situations by drinking.

Despite recent laws in Germany prohibiting smoking in public places, tobacco consumption has dropped only slightly. In 2006, around 31.9 percent of Germans smoked; in 2009, it was some 29.9 percent.

Passia said he had observed an increase in cannabis addictions among the people seeking counseling at his center, as well as addictions to non-substance abuses, such as the Internet, computers and cell phones.

"Addiction counseling means changing with the times," he stressed. "And the best way to address addiction is with openness and honesty because it is a serious illness which is socially stigmatized."

"Addiction does not evolve from individual problems, but is a reflection of a complex set of difficulties which require a customized solution for tackling them," said Passia.

Author: Louisa Schaefer
Editor: Kate Bowen