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The Risk of Relapse to Alcohol Drops after 5 Years Sober?

The Risk of Relapse to Alcohol Drops after 5 Years Sober?

Author: Shernide Delva


“After 5 years of sobriety, a former alcoholic has approximately the same chances of relapsing as a randomly selected member of the general population has of becoming an alcoholic.”

 The above claim was made in an article titled “The Science of Alcoholism” in the scientific publication Neuraptitude. Needless to say, the statement caused quite the controversy among forums such as Reddit.  The report provides a clear message of optimism and empowerment for those in recovery. However, many are challenging the accuracy of the statement and are skeptical if it is backed by science.

In response to the controversy, Neuraptitude responded to expand on the research they did to come up with their conclusion:

First, we must first define alcoholism. Alcoholism is a colloquial term not recognized in the medical community. The correct term is alcohol use disorder (AUD), and that is what is used to classify various levels of problem drinking.

For a person to qualify as engaging in a “hazardous consumption” of alcohol, they must meet the definition of risky alcohol use.

Risky alcohol use is defined as:

  • A man under 65 who drinks more than 14 drinks per week or more than four drinks per day.
  • A woman under 65 who drinks more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks per day.

A common belief is that an addict is always an addict, even after long-term abstinence. Therefore, the idea that the risk of addiction lowers after five years is controversial. Patients who refrain from their addiction are strongly advised never to return to using the substance.

From a neurobiological standpoint, the belief comes from the predisposing factors that render a person more susceptible to addiction than others. These predisposing factors are unlikely to change in the recovery process. Therefore, when a person with these vulnerabilities returns to drinking, they are likely to fall into addiction again.

However, Neuraptitude argues that the addict is always an addict presumption begins and ends with the above risks. In fact, they believe that addictive substances and behaviors were developed over millions of years ago for survival purposes. Furthermore, “driving substance abuse into remission is an enormous, but not impossible, task. That being said, many do achieve and maintain remission.”

Long-term remission from substance abuse is difficult to study for numerous reasons. The most common reason is a number of time researchers would have to follow up on the participant to obtain valid results. There are only a small number of studies that draw preliminary conclusions regarding the relationship between the amount of abstinence an addict has and the risk of relapse.

The studies that are out there suggest after five years of abstinence, the risk of relapse is around 15%. For those who are abstinent from a variety of substances, the risk of relapse drops to 14% after three years of abstinence. Still, these results are in the preliminary stages, and further study is required before any firm conclusions are drawn.

However, if we use the above data and compare it to the average member of the US population who is diagnosed with alcohol use disorder each year, we will see that number is 13.9% per recent estimates (range: 8.5-13.9%). Therefore, it is possible to state a person who is abstinent from alcohol five years has the same chance of relapsing as a member of the general population has a chance of becoming an alcoholic.

To be more specific, the publication states:
“We can revise our initial proclamation to more specifically assert that after 5 years of abstinence, a remitted alcoholic has approximately the same risk of relapse as a randomly selected member of the general US population has of experiencing alcoholism over a 1-year period.”

Why does it matter?

It is a tremendous feat for an addict to achieve even five years of sobriety. Therefore, the researchers believe it could be helpful to offer those in recovery hope during their struggle. The goal of five years allows the opportunity for hope and support during their struggle.

Overall, further studies are needed to confirm the statement. However, the purpose of the research was to offer hope to those struggling in recovery that in a few years, things are potentially bound to become easier.  What do you think of a study like this? If you are early in your sobriety and feel you are struggling, remember we are here to help. Call now.

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