12-Step Programs Work for All Ages, Study Finds

Posted on September 15th, 2014

Twelve-step programs are support or mutual-help groups designed, in part, to help people recovering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol achieve and maintain substance abstinence. For Americans affected by alcoholism and alcohol abuse (alcohol use disorder), participation in these programs is the most common step taken toward outside assistance. Some health professionals worry that 12-step programs don’t provide the same benefits for young-adult problem drinkers as they provide for older problem drinkers. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Harvard Medical School assessed the effectiveness of 12-step participation for younger drinkers under the age of 30.

Young Adults and Alcohol

Young American adults between the ages of 21 and 29 are more likely to consume alcohol than any other age group in the U.S., according to recent, nationwide survey results gathered by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. More than two-thirds of all people in this age range are drinkers. The peak rate of alcohol consumption (69.2 percent) occurs among people between the ages of 21 and 25; the rate falls only slightly to 67 percent for individuals between the ages of 26 and 29.

Collectively, adults in their 20s also have the highest level of involvement in the dangerous, drunkenness-producing form of intake called binge drinking. As with drinking in general, the highest rate for binging participation (45.1 percent) occurs in people in their early 20s. The binging rate falls to 37.7 percent in people in their late 20s. Finally, adults between the ages of 21 and 25 have the nation’s highest rate for heavy drinking. (Older teenagers slightly surpass people in their late 20s in this category.) Both binge drinking and heavy drinking significantly increase the risks for eventually developing alcoholism or diagnosable alcohol abuse.

12-Step Programs

Twelve-step programs use a model originally developed in the 1930s by Alcoholics Anonymous. Participants in these programs go through a series of progressive actions or steps designed to help them effectively deal with their substance problems and establish lifestyles that don’t include substance use. Specific advantages of 12-step participation include support from other people dealing with the impact of substance addiction, availability of support during times of the day or week when risks for problem drinking commonly increase, affordability and lack of a need to reveal personal details to program staff or other program attendees. According to research findings compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 12-step groups and similarly structured organizations produce long-term benefits for substance abstinence that roughly equal the benefits produced by the average substance treatment program. Still, 12-step participation and formal enrollment in a treatment program are not mutually exclusive, and affected individuals can typically profit from both options.

Effectiveness for Young Adults

In the study scheduled for publication in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the Harvard Medical School researchers used information obtained from 1,726 adults affected by alcohol use disorder to gauge the effectiveness of 12-step participation for problem-drinking adults under the age of 30. Specifically, the researchers gauged the effectiveness of participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. Of the study participants, 266 were age 29 or younger; the remaining 1,460 participants were 30 or older. The people in both age groups attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as part of a larger, three-month outpatient treatment for alcohol abuse/alcoholism. Fifteen months after this treatment ended, the researchers used two measurements to compare the outcomes for the two groups: the percentage of days during which alcohol consumption did not occur and the number of drinks consumed on the days when alcohol use did occur.

After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that the older adults participating in Alcoholics Anonymous maintained alcohol abstinence somewhat more often than their younger counterparts, in addition to drinking in somewhat smaller amounts when abstinence was not maintained. However, they also concluded that the younger adults also experienced clearly significant improvements in their ability to maintain alcohol abstinence, as well as clearly significant decreases in the amount of alcohol they consumed on drinking days.

The study’s authors concluded that, overall, Alcoholics Anonymous attendance works well for young adults recovering from serious drinking problems. They note the fact that they could not identify most of the underlying reasons 12-step attendance works for people in this age group. Future identification of these reasons may add even further to 12-step programs’ ability to provide vital assistance.

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