Almost one-third of the U.S. population meets alcohol use disorder (AUD) criteria on a lifetime basis. This review provides an overview of recent research on the prevalence and patterns of alcohol-related improvement and selectively reviews nationally representative surveys and studies that followed risk groups longitudinally with a goal of informing patients with AUD and AUD researchers, clinicians, and policy-makers about patterns of improvement in the population. Based on the research, alcohol use increases during adolescence and early adulthood and then decreases beginning in the mid-20s across the adult life span. Approximately 70% of persons with AUD and alcohol problems improve without interventions (natural recovery), and fewer than 25% utilize alcohol-focused services. Low-risk drinking is a more common outcome in untreated samples, in part because seeking treatment is associated with higher problem severity. Sex differences are more apparent in help-seeking than recovery patterns, and women have lower help-seeking rates than men. Whites are proportionately more likely to utilize services than are Blacks and Hispanics. Improving recovery rates will likely require offering interventions outside of the health care sector to affected communities and utilizing social networks and public health tools to close the longstanding gap between need and utilization of AUD-focused services.
Keywords: alcohol; alcohol treatment utilization; alcohol use disorder; epidemiology; low-risk drinking; natural recovery; recovery; remission.