12 steps

Impulsivity is an Independent Predictor of 15-Year Mortality Risk among Individuals Seeking Help for Alcohol-Related Problems

In yesterday’s blog we looked at how AA membership and the 12 step program of recovery helped reduce impulsivity in recovering alcoholics.

We mentioned also that impulsivity was present as a pathomechanism of alcoholism from vulnerability in “at risk” children from families, were there was a history of alcoholism, right the way through to recovering alcoholics in long term recovery (i.e. many years of recovery).

We cited and used excerpts from a study written by the same authors as the study we cite now (1).

This study shows and highlights how, if untreated, by recovery programs such as AA’s 12 steps, that “trait” impulsivity can lead to increased mortality in alcoholics.

This study interestingly shows there is a difference from “state-like” impulsivity in early recovery when recovering people are still distressed and “trait-like” which is after Year 1 of recovery when some of the severity of withdrawal from alcohol has long since abated and some recovery tools have been learnt.

The fact that this impulsivity continues to contribute to relapse and mortality may suggest it is a trait state in alcoholics and possibly a vulnerability to later alcoholism also.

In effect, it illustrates the role impulsivity plays as a pathomechanism in alcoholism, i.e. it is a psychological mechanism that drives addiction and alcoholism forward to it’s chronic endpoint.

Again research shows us how we can learn about a pathology from the recovery from it!


impulse control.preview



Although past research has found impulsivity to be a significant predictor of mortality, no studies have tested this association in samples of individuals with alcohol-related problems or examined moderation of this effect via socio-contextual processes. The current study addressed these issues in a mixed-gender sample of individuals seeking help for alcohol-related problems.


…higher impulsivity at baseline was associated with an increased risk of mortality from Years 1 to 16; higher impulsivity at Year 1 was associated with an increased risk of mortality from Years 1 to 16, and remained significant when accounting for the severity of alcohol use, as well as physical health problems, emotional discharge coping, and interpersonal stress and support at Year 1. In addition, the association between Year 1 impulsivity and 15-year mortality risk was moderated by interpersonal support at Year 1, such that individuals high on impulsivity had a lower mortality risk when peer/friend support was high than when it was low.


The findings highlight impulsivity as a robust and independent predictor of mortality.


…personality traits related to impulsivity (e.g., low conscientiousness) have been identified as significant predictors of poor health-related outcomes including mortality (Bogg and Roberts, 2004; Roberts et al., 2007). Although there is a well-established association between disinhibitory traits and alcohol use disorders (AUDs) (Labouvie and McGee, 1986; McGue et al., 1999;Sher et al., 2000), to our knowledge, no studies have tested these traits as predictors of mortality among individuals with alcohol-related problems or examined moderation of this effect via socio-contextual processes.

Predictors of Mortality Risk among Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders

Relative to the general population, individuals with AUDs are more likely to die prematurely (Finney et al., 1999; Johnson et al., 2005; Valliant, 1996). Accordingly, several longitudinal studies have aimed to identify the most salient risk factors for mortality in this population (for a review, see Liskow et al., 2000)

…more reliance on avoidance coping, less social support, and more stress from interpersonal relationships increase the risk of mortality among individuals with AUDs (Finney and Moos, 1992; Holahan et al., 2010; Mertens et al., 1996; Moos et al., 1990).

Impulsivity and Risk for Mortality: Relevance for Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders

Despite the litany of variables that have been examined as predictors of mortality among individuals with AUDs, tests of the significance of individual differences in personality are noticeably absent from this literature. In the clinical and health psychology literatures, however, personality traits have long been identified as possible risk factors for mortality (Friedman and Rosenman, 1959), with low conscientiousness emerging as one of the most consistent, trait-based predictors of poor health and reduced longevity (Kern and Friedman, 2008; Roberts et al., 2007). Conscientiousness is a broad domain of personality reflecting individual differences in the propensity to control one’s impulses, be planful, and adhere to socially-prescribed norms (John et al., 2008).

(previously) no studies in this literature have tested impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality in a sample of individuals with alcohol-related problems. This is a surprising omission, given that impulsivity is a well-established risk factor for alcohol misuse (Elkins et al., 2006; McGue et al., 1999; Sher et al., 2000) and therefore may be an especially potent predictor of mortality among individuals with AUDs. Furthermore, the role of impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality risk among individuals with AUDs is relevant from the standpoint of the stage of the alcohol recovery process.

Thus, we sought to examine the impulsivity-mortality link at baseline and one year after participants had initiated help-seeking for their alcohol use problems. At baseline, participants were in a state of distress due to their problematic alcohol use, whereas at Year 1 most participants had obtained help for their alcohol-related problems and reduced their drinking (Finney and Moos, 1995).

Given prior research on acute clinical states and self-report assessments of personality (e.g., Brown et al., 1991; Peselow et al., 1994;Reich et al., 1987), we hypothesized that individuals’ self-reports of impulsivity at Year 1 would be less a reflection of their alcohol problems – and therefore more likely to be independently linked to mortality risk – than their reports at baseline, which may be more closely associated with concurrent alcohol use and problems (i.e., state effects).


…impulsivity at baseline was a significant predictor of mortality risk from Years 1 to 16; however, this effect was accounted for by the severity of alcohol use at baseline. In contrast, impulsivity at Year 1 was associated with an increased risk of mortality over the subsequent 15 years…

In addition, a significant interaction was observed between impulsivity and peer/friend support at Year 1, which suggested that, among individuals high on impulsivity, the mortality risk may be reduced for those high on support from peers/friends. Collectively, these findings highlight impulsivity as an independent risk factor for mortality in AUD samples…

…It is also conceivable that, given participants were in a state of crisis at baseline, their reports of their impulsive tendencies at that time partly captured “state” effects (e.g., psychiatric distress from concurrent substance use; withdrawal symptoms) and therefore were less an indication of their typical or “characterological” pattern of impulsivity, independent of alcohol use. However, at Year 1, most participants had reduced their drinking and were not in a state of crisis; thus, their reports at that time may have been a better reflection of their “trait-like” pattern of impulsivity, which in turn may be a more robust independent predictor of long-term outcomes such as mortality. Accordingly, future studies that seek to test impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality among individuals with AUDs should consider the stage of the alcohol recovery process.

Moderation of the Impulsivity-Mortality Link via the Social Context

The results of the moderator analyses suggest that the effects of impulsivity on mortality may become manifest through interactions between traits and socio-contextual process (Friedman, 2000). That is, the dire effects of impulsivity on risk for mortality may not reach fruition for individuals who are able to maintain a strong peer support network. Conceivably, by virtue of their strong bond with a high-risk individual, such peers may have sufficient leverage to discourage expression of the individual’s impulsive tendencies and encourage consideration of the long-term consequences of his/her actions.

Such a perspective is consistent with evidence from the AUD treatment-outcome literature that social support networks are a key mechanism by which Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other psychosocial treatments can improve long-term drinking-related outcomes (Humphreys and Noke, 1997; Kaskutas et al., 2002).

Furthermore, from the standpoint of treatment, the present findings suggest that interventions for AUDs may benefit from an ecological perspective that considers the contexts in which dispositional tendencies, such as impulsivity, become expressed in individuals’ everyday lives. Notably, based on prior work with this sample, longer duration in AA and alcohol treatment was associated with a decline in impulsivity (Blonigen et al., 2009). In combination with the present findings, it appears that formal and informal help for AUDs may include “active ingredients” that can help curtail expression of impulsive tendencies (e.g., social integration, peer bonding; Moos, 2007,2008) and buffer the otherwise deleterious impact of such tendencies on health and longevity.


1. Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., Moos, B. S., & Moos, R. H. (2011). Impulsivity is an Independent Predictor of 15-Year Mortality Risk among Individuals Seeking Help for Alcohol-Related Problems. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 35(11), 2082–2092. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01560.x


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