On February 12, the 54th annual GRAMMY Awards paid tribute to music legend Whitney Houston, who died the previous night at the young age of 48. Early reports suggest that a deadly mix of prescription drugs and alcohol were the cause of Houston’s death, though toxicology results are still pending. It is well known that the six-time GRAMMY winner battled drug and alcohol addiction.
Michael Jackson…Amy Winehouse…and now Whitney Houston. Legendary singers who seemed to have it all—talent, charisma, fame, money, power, family support. And yet, they could not overcome their addiction to drugs.
That’s because addiction doesn’t care if you’re famous or rich—once you’re in its grip, the experience is similar for many of the 20 million people in the United States today who struggle with this brain disease.
Why Do People Continue To Take Drugs?
Why do people continue to abuse drugs and, in some cases, combine them with alcohol, when so many others have fallen from doing so? Although Houston entered rehab three times, she is a perfect example of why addiction is defined as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
The initial decision to take drugs is mostly voluntary—but after that, a combination of genetics and environment will write the rest of the story. Some people will become addicted and will find it impossible to stop taking drugs without help.
Addiction changes the brain’s structure and how it works. Brain imaging studies from people who are addicted to drugs show physical changes that not only affect feelings of pleasure but also judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and self-control. That may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors that characterize addiction.
What Are the Dangers of Abusing Prescription Drugs?
One of the greatest myths about prescription drugs is that, because doctors prescribe them, they are safer to abuse than illegal drugs. But as prescription drugs have become more available, more people are literally dying from their abuse. In fact, every year in the United States, more people die from an accidental overdose of painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined.
The word “prescription” is not the same as the word “safe,” especially when alcohol is added, which can affect heart rhythm, slow respiration, and even lead to death.
Resources To Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse
Although we can be saddened by Houston’s passing, we can also take a thoughtful look at her experience and learn from it.
NIDA offers many resources so you can learn the science behind what prescription drug abuse does to your brain and body. Are you curious how the choice to abuse prescription drugs could play out? Check out NIDA’s Choose Your Path videos to put yourself in the shoes of a story’s main character.
We don't know yet exactly how Whitney Houston died. We can only guess that her drug abuse and addiction may have contributed to her death. But we do know that addiction was a major blow to her life, career, family, friends, and fans, all of whom are experiencing the sad consequences.