In 1979, an expert World Health Organization committee discouraged the use of "alcoholism" in medicine, preferring the category of "alcohol dependence syndrome". In the 19th and early 20th centuries, alcohol dependence in general was called dipsomania, but that term now has a much more specific meaning. People suffering from alcoholism are often called "alcoholics". Many other terms, some of them insulting or informal, have been used throughout history. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 140 million people with alcoholism worldwide.
The American Medical Association supports a dual classification of alcoholism to include both physical and mental components. The biological mechanisms that cause alcoholism are not well understood. Social environment, stress, mental health, family history, age, ethnic group, and gender all influence the risk for the condition. Significant alcohol intake produces changes in the brain's structure and chemistry, though some alterations occur with minimal use of alcohol over a short term period, such as tolerance and physical dependence. These changes maintain the person with alcoholism's compulsive inability to stop drinking and result in alcohol withdrawal syndrome if the person stops. Alcohol misuse has the potential to damage almost every organ in the body, including the brain. The cumulative toxic effects of chronic alcohol abuse can cause both medical and psychiatric problems.
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