Periods of abstinence following the onset of alcohol dependence in 1,853 men and women

J Stud Alcohol. 1997 Nov;58(6):581-9. doi: 10.15288/jsa.1997.58.581.


Objective: Data from both laboratory experiments and retrospective histories of alcoholics indicate that alternations between periods of abstinence and heavy drinking are common in the course of alcoholism. This article examines the prevalence, chronological characteristics and clinical features associated with periods of abstinence in a large sample of alcohol dependent men and women.

Method: As part of the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA), semistructured personal interviews were used to gather data on the course of alcoholism in 1,853 alcohol dependent men and women. Data were evaluated regarding the characteristics of alcoholics with and without periods of abstinence lasting 3 or more months, and the course of these periods over time were evaluated separately for subjects with one, two, three or four episodes of abstention.

Results: Despite a relatively high threshold of 3 months for defining an abstinence period, 62.3% of the subjects had at least one such episode, including 55.6% of the 1,853 alcoholics for whom complete data were available. Those alcohol dependent subjects with periods of abstention had an average (+/- SD) of 1.7 +/- 0.99 such periods, and 43% of abstainers had two or more. Logistic regression analyses revealed that the predictors of history of abstention were female gender (odds ratio [OR] = 1.78), older age at interview (OR = 1.04 per year), younger age of onset of alcoholism (OR 0.93 per year), ever having been married (OR = 1.45), the number of DSM-III-R dependence items endorsed (OR = 1.03 per item) and attendance in AA (OR = 2.82). Among abstainers, a period lasting 5 or more years was predicted by older age (OR = 1.03 per year) and AA participation (OR = 3.23), but also by more years of alcoholism (OR = 1.06 per year), white racial background (OR = 1.79) and the absence of history of having been a proband (OR = 3.39).

Conclusions: Periods of abstinence of 3 or more months were commonly observed in the course of alcohol dependence. This information is important for clinicians who need to avoid inappropriate stereotypes of alcoholism and who wish to educate their alcohol dependent patients about the course of this disorder.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis
  • Alcoholism / epidemiology*
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Alcoholism / rehabilitation
  • Comorbidity
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Odds Ratio
  • Recurrence
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Stereotyping
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Temperance / psychology
  • Temperance / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States / epidemiology