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5 Years Milestone For Recovering Alcoholics

Wed., March 13, 1996

If an alcoholic man can refrain from drinking for five years, he can count on staying sober.

That’s the finding of Dr. George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist who has spearheaded a 50-year study of 268 former Harvard undergraduates and 456 inner-city men, following them every two years.

His study, reported in this month’s Archives of General Psychiatry, revealed that 40 percent of alcoholics relapsed after remaining sober for two years. But hardly anyone in the study who made it past five years slipped during the next 20 years, Vaillant said.

While the inner-city men began drinking earlier, the study found that they were more likely to remain abstinent once they had stopped drinking.

Vaillant also said his work has shown that alcoholics cannot return to social drinking safely. Of the 22 Harvard men who had tried controlled or social drinking for three or more years, only five were able to use alcohol modestly. The study also suggests that alcohol shortens the lifespan considerably. By age 70, 62 percent of the 21 alcohol-dependent college men were dead, compared with 17 percent of the 228 non-alcoholic college men. In the inner-city men, who were followed until the age of 60, 25 percent had died.

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