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November 27, 2018

Penn State researchers ID five age-specific 'profiles' of problem drinkers

Findings will, ideally, help provide more specialized treatment of alcohol use disorder

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Researchers identified five alcohol use disorder profiles to categorize people's drinking habits.

Thinking back on your drinking days, you could probably pull out a couple of types of drinkers from your memories: the social drinker, the binge drinker and the lonely drinker.

In a new study, Penn State University researchers say they have discovered five distinct classes, or "profiles," of people with alcohol use disorder, with each defined by a specific set of symptoms.

It’s worth noting that each profile existed in problem drinkers of all ages, but certain profiles were more common at different stages of life, Science Daily reports. As you could expect, young adults were more likely to fit the profile characterized by drinking too much and experiencing hangovers and other withdrawal symptoms. But older adults, in their late 50s to 60s, were more likely to struggle with cutting back on their drinking, for example.


RELATED READ: New guidelines: Screen all adults for unhealthy alcohol use


Researchers believe these findings suggest that diagnosing and treating alcohol use disorder is not one size fits all. In fact, treatment should be focused on a person's specific symptoms.

"We need to think beyond whether someone has an alcohol use disorder, yes or no, and take a look specifically at what they're struggling with and whether they're in a particularly risky class," said Ashley Linden-Carmichael, assistant research professor of biobehavioral health and faculty affiliate of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.

Alcohol use disorder has a variety of symptoms, ranging from drinking more or longer than intended to more severe symptoms, including withdrawal, according to the study. A person is considered to have an alcohol use disorder if they experience two or more of the designated symptoms.

To explore what alcohol use disorder looks like in people at different ages, the researchers used data from a “nationally representative” group of 5,402 participants in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. The sample was restricted to participants who met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder in the previous year and were between the ages of 18 and 64.

To analyze the data, researchers used a protocol developed at Penn State's Methodology Center to discover hidden "profiles," or groups of people who share similar symptoms of alcohol use disorder. They used this method to determine the prevalence each profile at different ages.

In doing so, researchers identified these five alcohol use disorder profiles:

Alcohol-induced injury: In addition to drinking too much, people in this profile reported getting into risky situations during or after drinking that may have resulted in injury.

Difficulty cutting back: People in this group struggled with wanting to cut back on their problematic drinking but being unable to.

Highly problematic, low perceived life interference: While people in this group reported experiencing many symptoms, they said their drinking did not interfere with their family, friends, work or hobbies.

Adverse effects only: People who fit this profile reported experiencing hangovers or withdrawal symptoms in addition to drinking too much.

Highly problematic: People in this group reported experiencing every symptom of alcohol use disorder.

"I'm interested in seeing, for example, if someone has a certain profile at a younger age, what happens to them later?" Linden-Carmichael explains. "If a person is in the adverse effects-only class at 21, what does their drinking look like at age 60? Do they escalate or slow down? If we could have a similarly large study but follow them across age, that would be the most intuitive and most beneficial for practice."

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