Impulsivity is an Independent Predictor of 15-Year Mortality Risk among Individuals Seeking Help for Alcohol-Related Problems

In yesterday’s blog we looked at how AA membership and the 12 step program of recovery helped reduce impulsivity in recovering alcoholics.

We mentioned also that impulsivity was present as a pathomechanism of alcoholism from vulnerability in “at risk” children from families, were there was a history of alcoholism, right the way through to recovering alcoholics in long term recovery (i.e. many years of recovery).

We cited and used excerpts from a study written by the same authors as the study we cite now (1).

This study shows and highlights how, if untreated, by recovery programs such as AA’s 12 steps, that “trait” impulsivity can lead to increased mortality in alcoholics.

This study interestingly shows there is a difference from “state-like” impulsivity in early recovery when recovering people are still distressed and “trait-like” which is after Year 1 of recovery when some of the severity of withdrawal from alcohol has long since abated and some recovery tools have been learnt.

The fact that this impulsivity continues to contribute to relapse and mortality may suggest it is a trait state in alcoholics and possibly a vulnerability to later alcoholism also.

In effect, it illustrates the role impulsivity plays as a pathomechanism in alcoholism, i.e. it is a psychological mechanism that drives addiction and alcoholism forward to it’s chronic endpoint.

Again research shows us how we can learn about a pathology from the recovery from it!

 

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“Abstract

Background

Although past research has found impulsivity to be a significant predictor of mortality, no studies have tested this association in samples of individuals with alcohol-related problems or examined moderation of this effect via socio-contextual processes. The current study addressed these issues in a mixed-gender sample of individuals seeking help for alcohol-related problems.

Results

…higher impulsivity at baseline was associated with an increased risk of mortality from Years 1 to 16; higher impulsivity at Year 1 was associated with an increased risk of mortality from Years 1 to 16, and remained significant when accounting for the severity of alcohol use, as well as physical health problems, emotional discharge coping, and interpersonal stress and support at Year 1. In addition, the association between Year 1 impulsivity and 15-year mortality risk was moderated by interpersonal support at Year 1, such that individuals high on impulsivity had a lower mortality risk when peer/friend support was high than when it was low.

Conclusions

The findings highlight impulsivity as a robust and independent predictor of mortality.

Introduction

…personality traits related to impulsivity (e.g., low conscientiousness) have been identified as significant predictors of poor health-related outcomes including mortality (Bogg and Roberts, 2004; Roberts et al., 2007). Although there is a well-established association between disinhibitory traits and alcohol use disorders (AUDs) (Labouvie and McGee, 1986; McGue et al., 1999;Sher et al., 2000), to our knowledge, no studies have tested these traits as predictors of mortality among individuals with alcohol-related problems or examined moderation of this effect via socio-contextual processes.

Predictors of Mortality Risk among Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders

Relative to the general population, individuals with AUDs are more likely to die prematurely (Finney et al., 1999; Johnson et al., 2005; Valliant, 1996). Accordingly, several longitudinal studies have aimed to identify the most salient risk factors for mortality in this population (for a review, see Liskow et al., 2000)

…more reliance on avoidance coping, less social support, and more stress from interpersonal relationships increase the risk of mortality among individuals with AUDs (Finney and Moos, 1992; Holahan et al., 2010; Mertens et al., 1996; Moos et al., 1990).

Impulsivity and Risk for Mortality: Relevance for Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders

Despite the litany of variables that have been examined as predictors of mortality among individuals with AUDs, tests of the significance of individual differences in personality are noticeably absent from this literature. In the clinical and health psychology literatures, however, personality traits have long been identified as possible risk factors for mortality (Friedman and Rosenman, 1959), with low conscientiousness emerging as one of the most consistent, trait-based predictors of poor health and reduced longevity (Kern and Friedman, 2008; Roberts et al., 2007). Conscientiousness is a broad domain of personality reflecting individual differences in the propensity to control one’s impulses, be planful, and adhere to socially-prescribed norms (John et al., 2008).

(previously) no studies in this literature have tested impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality in a sample of individuals with alcohol-related problems. This is a surprising omission, given that impulsivity is a well-established risk factor for alcohol misuse (Elkins et al., 2006; McGue et al., 1999; Sher et al., 2000) and therefore may be an especially potent predictor of mortality among individuals with AUDs. Furthermore, the role of impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality risk among individuals with AUDs is relevant from the standpoint of the stage of the alcohol recovery process.

Thus, we sought to examine the impulsivity-mortality link at baseline and one year after participants had initiated help-seeking for their alcohol use problems. At baseline, participants were in a state of distress due to their problematic alcohol use, whereas at Year 1 most participants had obtained help for their alcohol-related problems and reduced their drinking (Finney and Moos, 1995).

Given prior research on acute clinical states and self-report assessments of personality (e.g., Brown et al., 1991; Peselow et al., 1994;Reich et al., 1987), we hypothesized that individuals’ self-reports of impulsivity at Year 1 would be less a reflection of their alcohol problems – and therefore more likely to be independently linked to mortality risk – than their reports at baseline, which may be more closely associated with concurrent alcohol use and problems (i.e., state effects).

Discussion

…impulsivity at baseline was a significant predictor of mortality risk from Years 1 to 16; however, this effect was accounted for by the severity of alcohol use at baseline. In contrast, impulsivity at Year 1 was associated with an increased risk of mortality over the subsequent 15 years…

In addition, a significant interaction was observed between impulsivity and peer/friend support at Year 1, which suggested that, among individuals high on impulsivity, the mortality risk may be reduced for those high on support from peers/friends. Collectively, these findings highlight impulsivity as an independent risk factor for mortality in AUD samples…

…It is also conceivable that, given participants were in a state of crisis at baseline, their reports of their impulsive tendencies at that time partly captured “state” effects (e.g., psychiatric distress from concurrent substance use; withdrawal symptoms) and therefore were less an indication of their typical or “characterological” pattern of impulsivity, independent of alcohol use. However, at Year 1, most participants had reduced their drinking and were not in a state of crisis; thus, their reports at that time may have been a better reflection of their “trait-like” pattern of impulsivity, which in turn may be a more robust independent predictor of long-term outcomes such as mortality. Accordingly, future studies that seek to test impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality among individuals with AUDs should consider the stage of the alcohol recovery process.

Moderation of the Impulsivity-Mortality Link via the Social Context

The results of the moderator analyses suggest that the effects of impulsivity on mortality may become manifest through interactions between traits and socio-contextual process (Friedman, 2000). That is, the dire effects of impulsivity on risk for mortality may not reach fruition for individuals who are able to maintain a strong peer support network. Conceivably, by virtue of their strong bond with a high-risk individual, such peers may have sufficient leverage to discourage expression of the individual’s impulsive tendencies and encourage consideration of the long-term consequences of his/her actions.

Such a perspective is consistent with evidence from the AUD treatment-outcome literature that social support networks are a key mechanism by which Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other psychosocial treatments can improve long-term drinking-related outcomes (Humphreys and Noke, 1997; Kaskutas et al., 2002).

Furthermore, from the standpoint of treatment, the present findings suggest that interventions for AUDs may benefit from an ecological perspective that considers the contexts in which dispositional tendencies, such as impulsivity, become expressed in individuals’ everyday lives. Notably, based on prior work with this sample, longer duration in AA and alcohol treatment was associated with a decline in impulsivity (Blonigen et al., 2009). In combination with the present findings, it appears that formal and informal help for AUDs may include “active ingredients” that can help curtail expression of impulsive tendencies (e.g., social integration, peer bonding; Moos, 2007,2008) and buffer the otherwise deleterious impact of such tendencies on health and longevity.

References

1. Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., Moos, B. S., & Moos, R. H. (2011). Impulsivity is an Independent Predictor of 15-Year Mortality Risk among Individuals Seeking Help for Alcohol-Related Problems. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 35(11), 2082–2092. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01560.x

Alcoholics Anonymous and Reduced Impulsivity: A Novel Mechanism of Change

Impulsivity or lack of behaviour inhibition, especially when distressed, is one psychological mechanisms which is implicated in all addictive behaviour from substance addiction to behaviour addiction.

It is, in my view, linked to the impaired emotion processing as I have elucidated upon in various blogs on this site.

This impulsivity is present for example in those vulnerable to later alcoholism, i.e. sons and daughters of alcoholic parents or children  from a family that has a relatively high or concentrated density of alcoholics in the family history, right through to old timers, people who have decades of recovery from alcoholism.

It is an ever present and as a result part of a pathomechanism of alcoholism, that is it is fundamental to driving alcoholism to it’s chronic endpoint.

It partly drives addiction via it’s impact on decision making – research shows people of varying addictive behaviours choose now over later, even if it is a smaller short term gain over a greater long term gain. We seem to react to relieve a distress signal in the brain rather than in response to considering and evaluating the long term consequences of a decision or act.

No doubt this improves in recovery as it has with me. Nonetheless, this tendency for rash action with limited consideration of long term consequence is clearly a part of the addictive profile. Not only do we choose now over then, we appear to have an intolerance of uncertainty, which means we have difficulties coping with uncertain outcomes. In other words we struggle with things in the future particularly if they are worrying or concerning things, like a day in court etc. The future can continually intrude into the present. A thought becomes a near certain action, again similar to the though-action fusion of obsessive compulsive disorder. It is as if the thought and possible future action are almost fused, as if they are happening in unison.

Although simple, less worrying events can also make me struggle with leaving the future to the future instead of endless and fruitlessly ruminating about it in the now. In early recovery  especially I found that I had real difficulty dealing with the uncertainty of future events and always thought they would turn out bad. It is akin to catastrophic thinking.

If a thought of a drink entered into my head it was so distressing, almost as if I was being dragged by some invisible magnet to the nearest bar. It was horrendous. Fortunately I created my own thought action fusion to oppose this.

Any time I felt this distressing lure of the bar like some unavoidable siren call of alcohol I would turn that thought into the action of ringing my sponsor. This is why sponsees should ring sponsors about whatever, whenever in order to habitualize these responses to counteract the automatic responses of the addicted brain.

I think it is again based on an inherent emotion dysregulation. Obsessive thoughts are linked to emotion dysregulation.

My emotions can still sometimes control me and not the other way around.

Apparently we need to recruit the frontal part of the brain to regulate these emotions and this is the area most damaged by chronic alcohol consumption.

As a result we find it difficult to recruit this brain area which not only helps regulate emotion but is instrumental in making reflective, evaluative decisions about future, more long term consequence. As a result addicts of all types appear to use a “bottom up” sub-cortical part of the brain centred on the amgydala region to make responses to decisions instead of a “top down” more cortical part of the brain to make evaluative decisions.

We thus react, and rashly act to relieve the distress of undifferentiated emotions, the result of unprocessed emotion rather than using processed emotions to recruit the more cortical parts of the brain.

Who would have though emotions were so instrumental in us making decisions? Two parts of the brain that hold emotions in check so that they can be used to serve goal directed behaviour are the orbitofrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

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These areas also keep amgydaloid responding in check. Unfortunately these two areas are impaired in alcoholics and other addictive behaviours so their influence on and regulation of the amgydala is also impaired.

This means the sub cortical areas of the amgydala and related regions are over active and prompt not a goal directed response to decision making but a “fight or flight” response to alleviate distress and not facilitate goal directed behaviour.

128px-Amyg

 

Sorry for so much detail. I have read so much about medication recently which does this or that to reduce craving or to control  drinking but what about the underlying conditions of alcoholism and addictive behaviour? These are rarely mentioned or considered at all.

 

We always in recovery have to deal with alcoholism not just it’s symptomatic manifestation of that which is chronic alcohol consumption. This is a relatively simple point and observation that somehow alludes academics, researchers and so-called commentators on this fascinating subject.

Anyway that is some background to this study which demonstrates that long term AA membership can reduce this impulsivity and perhaps adds validity to the above arguments that improved behaviour inhibition and reducing impulsivity is a very possible mechanism of change brought about by AA membership and the 12 step recovery program.

It shows how we can learn about a pathology from the recovery from it!

Indeed when one looks back at one’s step 4 and 5 how many times was this distress based impulsivity the real reason for “stepping on the toes of others” and for their retaliation?

Were we not partly dominated by the world because we could not keep ourselves in check? Didn’t all our decisions get us to AA because they were inherently based on a decision making weakness? Isn’t this why it is always useful to have a sponsor, someone to discuss possible decisions with?

Weren’t we out of control, regardless of alcohol or substance or behaviour addiction? Isn’t this at the heart of our unmanageability?

I think we can all see how we still are effected by a tendency not to think things through and to act rashly.

The trouble it has caused is quite staggeringly really?

Again we cite a study (1) which has Rudolf H. Moos as a co-author. Moos has authored and co-authored a numbered of fine papers on the effectiveness of AA and is a rationale beacon in a sea of sometimes quite controversial and ignorant studies on AA, and alcoholism in general.

“Abstract

Reduced impulsivity is a novel, yet plausible, mechanism of change associated with the salutary effects of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Here, we review our work on links between AA attendance and reduced impulsivity using a 16-year prospective study of men and women with alcohol use disorders (AUD) who were initially untreated for their drinking problems. Across the study period, there were significant mean-level decreases in impulsivity, and longer AA duration was associated with reductions in impulsivity…

Among individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUD), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is linked to improved functioning across a number of domains [1, 2]. As the evidence for the effectiveness of AA has accumulated, so too have efforts to identify the mechanisms of change associated with participation in this mutual-help group [3]. To our knowledge, however, there have been no efforts to examine links between AA and reductions in impulsivity-a dimension of personality marked by deficits in self-control and self-regulation, and tendencies to take risks and respond to stimuli with minimal forethought.

In this article, we discuss the conceptual rationale for reduced impulsivity as a mechanism of change associated with AA, review our research on links between AA and reduced impulsivity, and discuss potential implications of the findings for future research on AA and, more broadly, interventions for individuals with AUD.

Impulsivity and related traits of disinhibition are core risk factors for AUD [5, 6]. In cross-sectional research, impulsivity is typically higher among individuals in AUD treatment than among those in the general population [7] and, in prospective studies, impulse control deficits tend to predate the onset of drinking problems [811]

Although traditionally viewed as static variables, contemporary research has revealed that traits such as impulsivity can change over time [17]. For example, traits related to impulsivity exhibit significant mean- and individual-level decreases over the lifespan [18], as do symptoms of personality disorders that include impulsivity as an essential feature [21, 22]. Moreover, entry into social roles that press for increased responsibility and self-control predict decreases in impulsivity [16, 23, 24]. Hence, individual levels of impulsivity can be modified by systematic changes in one’s life circumstances [25].

Substance use-focused mutual-help groups may promote such changes, given that they seek to bolster self-efficacy and coping skills aimed at controlling substance use, encourage members to be more structured in their daily lives, and target deficits in self-regulation [26]. Such “active ingredients” may curb the immediate self-gratification characteristic of disinhibition and provide the conceptual grounds to expect that AA participation can press for a reduction in impulsive inclinations.

…the idea of reduced impulsivity as a mechanism of change…it is consistent with contemporary definitions of recovery from substance use disorders that emphasize improved citizenship and global health [31], AA’s vision of recovery as a broad transformation of character [32], and efforts to explore individual differences in emotional and behavioral functioning as potential mechanisms of change (e.g., negative affect [33,34]).

Several findings are notable from our research on associations between AA attendance and reduced impulsivity. First, consistent with the idea of impulsivity as a dynamic construct [18, 19], mean-levels of impulsivity decreased significantly in our AUD sample. Second, consistent with the notion that impulsivity can be modified by contextual factors [25], individuals who participated in AA longer tended to show larger decreases in impulsivity across all assessment intervals.

References

Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., & Moos, R. H. (2013). Alcoholics anonymous and reduced impulsivity: a novel mechanism of change. Substance abuse, 34(1), 4-12.

Participation in Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous

So keep taking the medicine…

“A 16-Year Follow-Up of Initially Untreated Individuals

Abstract

This study focused on the duration of participation in professional treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for previously untreated individuals with alcohol use disorders. These individuals were surveyed at baseline and 1 year, 3 years, 8 years, and 16 years later. Compared with individuals who remained untreated, individuals who obtained 27 weeks or more of treatment in the first year after seeking help had better 16-year alcohol-related outcomes. Similarly, individuals who participated in AA for 27 weeks or more had better 16-year outcomes. Subsequent AA involvement was also associated with better 16-year outcome…some of the association between treatment and long-term alcohol-related outcomes appears to be due to participation in AA.

We focus here on participation in professional treatment and AA among previously untreated individuals after these individuals initially sought help for their alcohol use disorders and address three sets of questions:

  1. Is the duration of treatment obtained in the first year after seeking help, and the duration of subsequent treatment, associated with individuals’ long-term (16-year) alcohol-related and psychosocial outcomes? Is participation in treatment in the second and third years … after initiating help seeking associated with additional benefits beyond those obtained from participation in the first year?
  2. Is the duration of participation in AA in the first year, and the duration of subsequent participation, associated with individuals’ long-term (16-year) outcomes? Is participation in AA in the second and third years associated with additional benefits beyond those obtained from participation in the first year?
  3. Many of the individuals who participate in one modality of help (professional treatment or AA) also participate in the other modality. Accordingly, we focus on whether the associations between the duration of participation in treatment and AA and 16-year outcomes are independent of participation in the other modality of help. We also consider interactions between the duration of treatment and AA in that, for example, one modality could compensate for or amplify the influence of the other.

 

Independent Contribution of Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous

Patients who participate in both self-help groups and treatment tend to have better outcomes than do patients who are involved only in treatment (Fiorentine, 1999;Fiorentine & Hillhouse, 2000). According to Moos et al. (2001), patients with substance use disorders who attended more self-help group meetings had better 1-year outcomes.

Similarly, among patients discharged from intensive substance use care, participation in self-help groups was associated with better 1-year (Ouimette et al., 1998), 2-year, and 5-year (Ritsher, Moos, & Finney, 2002; Ritsher, McKellar, et al., 2002) outcomes, after controlling for outpatient mental health care. We focus here on whether the duration of participation in one modality of help (treatment or AA) contributes to long-term outcomes beyond the contribution of participation in the other modality.

Prior Findings With This Sample

In prior work with the current sample, we found that individuals who entered treatment or AA in the first year after seeking help had better alcohol-related outcomes and were more likely to be remitted (in recovery) than were individuals who did not obtain any help. Individuals who participated in treatment and/or in AA for a longer interval in the first year were more likely to be abstinent and had fewer drinking problems at 1-year and 8-year follow-ups (Moos & Moos, 2003; 2004a; 2005b; Timko, Moos, Finney, & Lesar, 2000).

In this article, the distinctive focus is on associations between the duration of participation in treatment and AA and 16-year outcomes. We also consider the independent contribution of participation in treatment and AA to 16-year outcomes.

Discussion

Compared to individuals who did not enter treatment in the first year after they sought help, individuals who obtained treatment for 27 weeks or more experienced better 16-year alcohol-related outcomes. Individuals who participated in AA for 27 weeks or more in the first year, and in years 2 and 3, had better 16-year outcomes than did individuals who did not participate in AA. Some of the contribution of treatment reflected participation in AA, whereas the contribution of AA was essentially independent of the contribution of treatment.

Participation in Treatment and 16-Year Outcomes

About 60% of individuals who sought help for their alcohol use problems entered professional treatment within one year. These individuals obtained an average of 20 weeks of treatment. Compared to untreated individuals, individuals who obtained 27 weeks or more of treatment in the first year were more likely to be abstinent and less likely to have drinking problems at 16 years than were individuals who remained untreated. These findings extend earlier results on this sample (Moos & Moos, 2003; 2005b; Timko et al., 1999) and are consistent with prior studies that have shown an association between more-extended treatment and better substance use outcomes (Moos et al., 2000, 2001;Ouimette et al., 1998).

Participation in Alcoholics Anonymous and 16-Year Outcomes

The findings extend earlier results on this sample (Moos & Moos, 2004a; 2005b) and those of prior studies (Connors et al., 2001; Fiorentine, 1999; Ouimette et al., 1998;Watson et al., 1997) by showing that more extended participation in AA is associated with better alcohol-related and self-efficacy outcomes. The results support the benefit of extended engagement in AA, in that a longer duration of participation in the first year, and in the second and third years, was independently associated with better 16-year outcomes. In addition, our findings indicate that attendance for more than 52 weeks in a 5-year interval may be associated with a higher likelihood of abstinence than attendance of up to 52 weeks.

 Part of the association between AA attendance and better social functioning, which reflects the composition of the social network, is likely a direct function of participation in AA. In fact, for some individuals, involvement with a circle of abstinent friends may reflect a turning point that enables them to address their problems, build their coping skills, and establish more supportive social resources (Humphreys, 2004; Humphreys, Mankowski, Moos, & Finney, 1999). Participation in a mutual support group may enhance and amplify these changes in life context and coping to promote better long-term outcomes.

Independent Contribution of Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous

Consistent with prior studies (Fiorentine, 1999; Fiorentine & Hillhouse, 2000; Moos et al., 2001; Ritsher, McKellar, et al., 2002; Ritsher, Moos, & Finney, 2002), longer participation in AA made a positive contribution to alcohol-related, self-efficacy, and social functioning outcomes, over and above the contribution of treatment.

An initial episode of professional treatment may have a beneficial influence on alcohol-related functioning; however, continued participation in a community-based self-help program, such as AA, appears to be a more important determinant of long-term outcomes.

Moreover, compared with individuals who participated only in treatment in the first year, individuals who participated in both treatment and AA were more likely to achieve 16-year remission (i.e. still be in recovery) (Moos & Moos, 2005a).

In interpreting these findings, it is important to remember that participation in treatment likely motivated some individuals to enter AA; thus, some of the contribution of AA to 16-year outcomes should be credited to treatment. Another consideration involves the differential selection processes into treatment versus AA. Individuals with more severe alcohol-related problems tend to obtain longer episodes of treatment, but this selection and allocation process is much less evident for AA.

These divergent selection processes may help to explain the finding that AA is more strongly associated with positive long-term outcomes than is treatment.”

…keep making the meetings!

References

Moos, R. H., & Moos, B. S. (2006). Participation in Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous: A 16-Year Follow-Up of Initially Untreated Individuals. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(6), 735–750. doi:10.1002/jclp.20259