Beating addiction: impossible or surprisingly common?

It’s hard to find anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by addiction, in some form or another. Whether it’s my unbridled coffee intake, a friend’s pack-a-day cigarette habit, a cousin’s problem drinking or a brother’s drug abuse, addictions are all around us. By definition, these are the habits that are hard to break. But what pushes them into “addiction” territory is these habits’ ability to harm, destroying bodies (some slowly, some swiftly) and even shattering lives.

Evidence points to two ways to think about addiction: as a chronic, brain-based disease or as a dysfunctional if temporary coping strategy — a bad habit — that a person can overcome in time. In his story “The Addiction Paradox” , Bruce Bower lays out the evidence for the latter. The conflict between the two views, Bower reveals, comes from different ways of studying the natural history of addiction. Research that focuses on people who have sought formal treatment paints a picture of lifelong struggle — these people tend to relapse over and over. In contrast, long-term studies of the general population identify many addicts who, a few years on, have given up the habit, usually without any structured treatment.

That’s an empowering message, so why don’t you hear it more often? Labeling addiction as a disease, and not a choice, may lead to more compassionate treatment of those who suffer with addiction and more support for public health measures to reduce it. But if scientists could learn more about how people pull themselves out of addiction, that information would be invaluable to public health.

Climate scientists are grappling with another two-sided problem: whether clouds, which act as both umbrellas and blankets around the planet, will have a net warming or cooling effect as climate warms. While the answer is still a bit hazy, as Gabriel Popkin reports in “Cloudy Forecast” , it doesn’t seem as though clouds will lessen global warming, as some had hoped.

You’ll find some more definitive results in this issue as well: A new genetic study points to the Clovis people as ancestors to all indigenous Americans. A second, larger wave of the H7N9 bird flu virus has hit China. And the recent hiatus in global warming may well be due to stronger Pacific trade winds.

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