Who really needs treatment? And how should this be tailored to better incorporate the severity and specificity of addiction?
Current epidemiological studies have shown that most people will remit—on their own, without formal treatment—from addictions to nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and prescription pills. However, the common belief among treatment centers and medical professionals is that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease—once an addict, always an addict, as they say at 12-step meetings.
Should I get treatment? Do I need to? What kind of treatment should I be looking for? These are questions likely everyone with a substance or behavioral addiction asks. The answers are elusive. The fact is there aren’t many studies looking at the trajectories of drug use—how long it lasts, and how the severity and specificity (choice of drug) influence remission rates and therefore, treatment expectations. Understanding the patterns of substance abuse is essential for developing more effective prevention and treatment strategies.
NESARC, or the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, was a large study designed to determine the magnitude and progression of alcohol use and related substance use and comorbid psychiatric disorders among the general population. Out of 43,000 people interviewed between 2001 and 2002, and then again from 2004 to 2005, it found that the majority of individuals dependent on nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine achieved remission at some point in their lives. The half-life, or the time it took for half the people to remit, was 26 years for nicotine, 14 for alcohol, 6 for cannabis, and 5 for cocaine. In another analysis, scientists found that most prescription drug addicts come clean, with a half-life of between 4 and 5 years. The drawbacks to a self-reported study are obvious: our memories often don’t serve us well. Plus, how many people sought “informal” treatment, even along the lines of simply asking family and friends for support? Finally, the numbers are different for those who sought formal treatment—which might suggest that severity influences who will and will not remit without treatment. SAMHSA data says that duration from first use to treatment for alcohol is 20 years, cocaine is 14.5, heroin is 12.5, stimulants is 12, marijuana is 12, and prescription drugs is 8.
The “aging out” theory is well researched—in fact, it dates back to the 1960s. NESARC data simply backs it up. People grow up, and they either have to choose between adult responsibilities—leaving home, getting married, having kids—and getting loaded; or they can no longer afford to, whether financially, physically, or emotionally. “The maturing out process is believed to result when people enter ‘young adulthood’ (18 to 25 years old) and take on the roles and responsibilities of adulthood, [for example] marriage, parenthood, labor market entry,” says Elizabeth Evans, who conducts research into drug use over the life course at UCLA’s Integrated Substance Abuse Programs. Attitudes change, and people become less apt to act impulsively.
Natural recovery is recovering without formal treatment or mutual support groups. About three-fourths of people in recovery did not make use of formal treatment or mutual help groups to achieve remission; however, those with less severe problems, fewer comorbidities, and more social support have a greater chance of recovering without formal treatment, says the Recovery Research Institute. The concepts of treatment and mutual support are changing, too, in light of the numerous online resources available today. Online support networks like SMART Recovery, virtual 12-step meetings, and web-based recovery forums, not to mention the sober blogging community, are changing the way people relate—providing them with more tools and improving the chances for success.
Trajectories of drug use
Not all addicts will age out, or mature away from their addiction. “The maturing out phenomenon has been less well-documented for substances other than marijuana and alcohol,” Evans says. “Instead, a growing amount of evidence—much of it generated by the work that has been done here at our organization—indicates that individuals who engage in problematic use of methamphetamine, cocaine, and particularly heroin, tend to persist in their use over many years of the adult life course.”
In one study not conducted at UCLA, scientists found that one-third of adults continued using narcotics into middle age. “The few long-term follow-up studies have generally shown that severe or dependent users tend to persist in their drug use, often for substantial periods of their lifespan,” writes UCLA’s Dr. Yih-Ing Hser, lead author of multiple papers on drug use trajectories. “For example, data from our 33-year follow-up study of heroin addicts has shown that heroin addiction is characterized by long periods of regular use and tends to persist over the life course.”
In a recent study, Hser found that heroin was used more often and for longer periods of time than cocaine or meth. “In general, heroin is characterized by a greater liability for physical dependence than other substances,” Evans, who was a co-author, says. “To avoid physical withdrawal symptoms, heroin users need to use consistently. This is not the case for other substances.”
It’s also been shown that early onset means worse outcomes. One in four Americans who began using any addictive substance before age 18 end up addicted, compared to one in 25 who started using at age 21 or older. Hser found that users in the high use group also had earlier onsets of drug use and crime, longer periods of incarceration, and were the least employed. In general, first use that happens before age 15 is associated with a more severe course of substance use disorders and poorer health and social consequences over time, Evan says. Read more “the fix”…