Variety of Social Connections Helps Problem Drinkers

Alcohol use disorder is the current term used to diagnose cases of serious, non-addicted alcohol abuse, as well as cases of alcoholism. Doctors use this diagnosis because any given individual can simultaneously have symptoms of both of these conditions. In a study published in May 2014 in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers from two U.S. universities sought to determine if people with an alcohol use disorder diagnosis experience a significant decline in the size and/or variety of their social connections with others. These researchers concluded that the social outcomes of people primarily affected by symptoms of alcoholism differ from the outcomes of people primarily affected by symptoms of alcohol abuse.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Prior to May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) directed doctors to diagnose the symptoms of serious alcohol abuse separately from the symptoms of alcoholism. To receive an alcohol abuse diagnosis, an affected person had to have at least one of four potential symptoms of a destructive, non-addicted pattern of alcohol consumption. To receive an alcoholism diagnosis, an affected person had to have at least three out of seven potential symptoms of a destructive pattern of drinking stemming from physical alcohol dependence. For years, doctors and researchers have known that some of the symptoms used to diagnose non-addicted alcohol abuse appear with predictable regularity in alcoholics; conversely, some of the symptoms used to diagnose alcoholism appear with predictable regularity in non-addicted alcohol abusers. The APA created the alcohol use disorder diagnosis specifically to recognize the overlapping nature of alcoholism and alcohol abuse and give doctors a way to acknowledge this reality when identifying alcohol-related problems in their patients.

Social Connections

Psychologists, sociologists and other scientists refer to social connections as social networks, although the common meaning of this term has shifted radically with the arrival of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Common benefits of strong social links to others include increased access to emotional resources in times of stress, increased access to financial support and other forms of material assistance, and increased access to various forms of life-improving or life-sustaining information. Some addiction specialists and researchers believe that the social networks of people with serious alcohol problems decline dangerously; however, other experts in the field believe that people with serious alcohol problems often retain both their social networks and the benefits associated with those networks.

Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcoholism

In the study published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers from the University of Georgia and the University of Michigan used data from a nationwide project called the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) to assess the vitality of the social networks maintained by people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. Specific measurements of this vitality included the overall size of any given individual’s network, as well as the diversity of the types of connections maintained within that network (ties to family, ties to friends, work-related ties, etc.). The NESARC data listed findings separately for people affected by alcoholism and people affected by diagnosable alcohol abuse. The data also included basic demographic information (gender, age, etc.) for each individual.

After analyzing all of the available material, the researchers found that people affected by alcoholism experience a significant reduction in the size of their social networks, as well as a significant reduction in the variety of the connections contained within those networks. Conversely, they concluded that people affected by non-addicted alcohol abuse have social networks with characteristics closer to those found in the networks of individuals untouched by alcohol use disorder.

Overall Impact on Social Networks

The authors of the study concluded that, despite the differences between alcohol abusers and alcoholics, the variety of any problem drinker’s social connections helps predict the seriousness of his or her alcohol use disorder symptoms. On the other hand, social network size does not have the same predictive power. Based on their findings, the authors caution against any blanket statements regarding the link between serious drinking problems and social network vitality. They note that any measurement of alcohol’s impact on social connections varies according to the specific alcohol-related issue under consideration, as well as the specific method used to determine social connection strength.

Posted on May 27th, 2014

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