Impulsivity and Alcohol a Dangerous Mix

The results of a long-term study reveal that people who struggle with impulse control may die sooner than those with more self-discipline. This is especially true for those who compound their risk with improper use of alcohol.

The prospective cohort study spanning 16 years was performed by Daniel Blonigen, Ph.D., and his team at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The study’s 628 participants were all people who had sought treatment for alcohol-related problems. The team established baselines and then followed the group over the 16-year life of the study. Researchers collected data on a set of variables as people began the study and then again at the end of the first year in order to calculate the 15-year probability of death during years one to sixteen of the study.

Only 515 participants continued to seek treatment for alcohol abuse and remained in the study at the one-year benchmark. Researchers learned that among that group, the people who scored high for impulsivity were at an increased risk of dying over the study’s life. This risk remained even after other risk factors such as physical health, age, sex, marital status and severity of drinking were taken into account. A total of 93 persons died during the 15 remaining years of the study.

Impulsivity and the Risk of Premature Death

Impulsivity is defined as taking undue risks, not considering consequences and having a low level of self-control. It is known to increase the risk of premature death completely apart from problem drinking habits. Impulsivity has been linked to violent crime, risky sexual behavior, illicit drug use and dangerous driving.

The same, of course, is true for alcoholics. Nonetheless, up until now, no formal research had been done to measure how impulsivity impacts mortality for those with alcohol problems. Although the study demonstrated that impulsivity decreases longevity for those with alcohol use disorder, it fails to explain why.

The Role of a Social Support Network

A follow up (supplemental) analysis did, however, make some hopeful discoveries. Having a support system of family and friends appeared to mitigate the danger of impulsivity. And, the benefit was evident regardless of the number of friends in that support network.

More important than the number of friends was the strength of the friendships. Having just one or two well-trusted friends in whom it was safe to confide was enough to make a difference. These findings underline the importance of helping people in treatment develop social networks as well as measuring them in terms of strength of intimacy.

Other psychologists commenting on the study’s results say it is to be expected that social relationships could wield such influence. In fact, one remarked, the influence of friends can work both ways. When the person is surrounded by others interested in helping “keep them in line,” then the support works positively. But when friends are also involved in problematic behavior patterns, they are likely to increase rather than decrease the person’s risk.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and by the Department of Veterans Affairs.