The road to recovery from alcoholism (search) is not only possible, it’s also fairly common. More than a third of U.S. adults who were dependent on alcohol are now in full recovery, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
“Many people can and do recover from alcoholism,” says NIAAA director Ting-Kai Li, MD, in a news release.
The news comes from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). More than 43,000 American adults aged 18-24 took part in the 2001-2002 study.
The alcoholism recovery findings are based on 4,400 NESARC participants. NIAAA researchers Deborah Dawson and colleagues pored over the data, reported in “Recovery from DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence: United States, 2001-2002.” It’s the first such update in a decade.
All participants met the criteria for alcohol dependence, including tolerance to alcohol, withdrawal symptoms, and persistent desire or attempts to stop or reduce drinking.
Their alcohol dependence had started more than a year before the survey. Most were middle-aged white men. More than half were married or living with someone, and 60 percent had attended or completed college.
Three out of four had a family history of alcoholism. One-third of the respondents reported drinking eight or more standard drinks a day during their heaviest drinking. More than half had started drinking between ages 18 and 24.
Tracking Alcoholism Recovery
More than a third of participants (35.9 percent) were fully recovered from alcohol dependence — meaning they had complete abstinent recovery or became a “low-risk drinker.” That definition is in accordance with standards set by the American Psychological Association.
About 18 percent had become abstainers, totally giving up alcohol. A similar number (17.7 percent) were low-risk drinkers. They hadn’t quit alcohol drinking completely but had no symptoms of either abuse or dependence. They also didn’t drink enough in the past to raise their relapse risk.
However, one in four participants was still dependent on alcohol. About a third were in partial remission, showing some symptoms of alcohol abuse or dependence.
Others were dangerously close to relapse. About 12 percent were past risk drinkers; they had no symptoms of dependency but had a pattern of drinking that raised their relapse risk. For men, a risk drinker is one that drinks more than 14 drinks per week, or five or more drinks on any given day. For women, a risk drinker consumes more than seven drinks per week, or four or more drinks on any day.
Formal Alcoholism Treatment Rare
Many participants had never been formally treated for alcohol problems. Only a quarter of participants said they had ever gotten treatment for their drinking problems.
Treatment was most common among abstainers (49 percent.) Only about one in six fully recovered low-risk drinkers said they had received treatment.
High-risk drinkers with no symptoms were the least likely to have had treatment for alcoholdependency. Only 12 percent of them said they’d gotten formal help to end their alcohol dependence.
Who Recovered, Who Didn’t
Marriage, age, and being a woman improved the chances of recovery. People with personality disorders were less likely to have recovered. That information could help tailor treatment, say the researchers.
SOURCES: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Recovery from DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence.”