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J Stud Alcohol. 2005 Nov;66(6):756-65.

Sequencing the lifetime onset of alcohol-related symptoms in older adults: is there evidence of disease progression?

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Department of Veterans Affairs, Center for Health Care Evaluation, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, 795 Willow Road, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA.



The purpose of this study was to evaluate evidence of orderly symptom progression in alcohol-use disorders (disease-progression model).


A sample of community-residing older problem drinkers provided information about their life history of drinking, including the age at which they had experienced alcohol-related symptoms that correspond to criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence. Symptom sets and possible sequences were formulated separately for women and men, based on the average number of years from drinking initiation to symptom onset and on symptom prevalence. We assessed how well the ordering of symptoms experienced by individual respondents matched the sequences derived with these group-level measures; we also assessed whether individuals progress from alcohol abuse to dependence as is implied in some conceptualizations of alcohol-use disorders.


Half or more of these older adults experienced symptom onset in an order that was inconsistent with the possible symptom sequences derived from group-level analysis (e.g., reversals from the expected order or concurrent onset of symptoms expected to occur sequentially). Similarly, alcohol abuse did not appear to be a precursor to the development of alcohol dependence in individual patterns of symptom onset.


Although group-level results based on the number of years from drinking initiation to symptom onset or on symptom prevalence may seem to point to orderly progression in the development of alcohol-related symptoms, these group-level results do not capture individual experiences very well. In this community-residing sample of problem drinkers, most of whom had never sought treatment, there was marked variability in the course of symptom development, which raises questions about the utility of a disease-progression model.

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