Can Alcohol Use Disorder Recovery Include Some Heavy Drinking? A Replication and Extension up to 9 Years Following Treatment

Katie Witkiewitz, Matthew R. Pearson, Adam D. Wilson, Elena R. Stein, Victoria R. Votaw, Kevin A. Hallgren, Stephen A. Maisto, Julia E. Swan, Frank J. Schwebel, Arnie Aldridge, Gary A. Zarkin, Jalie A. Tucker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Background: Recent research indicates some individuals who engage in heavy drinking following treatment for alcohol use disorder fare as well as those who abstain with respect to psychosocial functioning, employment, life satisfaction, and mental health. The current study evaluated whether these findings replicated in an independent sample and examined associations between recovery profiles and functioning up to 6 years later. Methods: Data were from the 3-year and 7- to 9-year follow-ups of subsamples initially recruited for the COMBINE study (3-year follow-up: n = 694; 30.1% female, 21.0% non-White; 7- to 9-year follow-up: n = 127; 38.9% female, 27.8% non-White). Recovery at 3 years was defined by latent profile analyses including measures of health functioning, quality of life, employment, alcohol consumption, and cannabis and other drug use. Functioning at the 7- to 9-year follow-up was assessed using single items of self-rated general health, hospitalizations, and alcohol consumption. Results: We identified 4 profiles at the 3-year follow-up: (i) low-functioning frequent heavy drinkers (13.9%), (ii) low-functioning infrequent heavy drinkers (15.8%), (iii) high-functioning heavy drinkers (19.4%), and (iv) high-functioning infrequent drinkers (50.9%). At the 7- to 9-year follow-up, the 2 high-functioning profiles had the best self-rated health, and the high-functioning heavy drinking profile had significantly fewer hospitalizations than the low-functioning frequent heavy drinking profile. Conclusions: Previous findings showing heterogeneity in recovery outcomes were replicated. Most treatment recipients functioned well for years after treatment, and a subset who achieved stable recovery engaged in heavy drinking and reported good health outcomes up to 9 years after treatment. Results question the long-standing emphasis on drinking practices as a primary outcome, as well as abstinence as a recovery criterion in epidemiologic and treatment outcome research and among stakeholder groups and funding/regulatory agencies. Findings support an expanded recovery research agenda that considers drinking patterns, health, life satisfaction, and functioning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1862-1874
Number of pages13
JournalAlcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • Alcohol Treatment
  • Alcohol Use Disorder
  • Mixture Models
  • Recovery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Toxicology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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