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New Review Finds Alcoholics Anonymous Is Effective, But Not For Everyone

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, has been around for almost 85 years. But up until this week, medical researchers weren't quite sure just how well AA worked. Well, now a new review published by the Cochrane Collaboration has found that AA may lead to longer breaks from alcohol compared to other evidence-based treatments.

Deborah Becker has been following all of this. She's a senior correspondent and host at WBUR and joins us now. Hey, Deborah.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So for quite some time now, people weren't sure how effective AA was, and now they are. So what's changed?

BECKER: Well, what they say has changed is that they have more and better studies about AA and professional programs that are based on AA principles. So the researchers here looked at 27 studies of AA programs involving more than 10,000 people. And the most striking finding of looking at all of this research was that the folks who were in AA or AA-based programs tended to stay away from alcohol longer.

CHANG: OK. So can you just very briefly explain the mechanism by which AA is supposed to work?

BECKER: Well, AA is primarily a social support network for people, so they can discuss how they are trying to achieve recovery and what they're doing to stay in recovery. And AA is based on what are known as the 12 steps. And these are 12 steps that folks take to guide them to recovery.

CHANG: And this leaning into social networks, is that something that's unique to AA?

BECKER: Well, I don't know if it's unique to AA, but certainly the support network theory of alcoholism and even addiction treatment is something that's widely used. And one of the lead authors of this Cochrane review is Dr. John Kelly at Massachusetts General Hospital. And he says what this review shows is that AA helps people shift their social networks away from heavy drinkers and toward people in recovery. And he says that's what professional therapy tries to do, but this - AA - does it in a more accessible and obviously less expensive way.

CHANG: OK. So when it comes to, say, the gold standard for treating alcohol addiction, is AA considered vastly better or just a little bit better?

BECKER: Well, professional treatments typically involve cognitive behavioral therapy. That's often used in most professional treatments for alcoholism. And so what this research did was look at AA and some of those other professional treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy. And what it found was that 42% of AA participants were completely abstinent one year compared with 35 who underwent only the professional treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy. But the thing that the researchers point out is that AA is free. You don't have to make an appointment. It's open to everyone. And I think that is what they're saying, is that it saves money, it's very accessible, and it's showing these long rates of continuous abstinence.

CHANG: But AA doesn't work for a lot of people out there, so what should those people do?

BECKER: I think that most of the professional advice even with this research is that many people have different paths to recovery. And so they need to find whatever works for them. What this suggests is that social support really helps a lot of people. However they find that, whether it's AA or other support groups, they say whatever people can find to hang on to that gives them the necessary support is really what they should do.

CHANG: Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Thank you very much.

BECKER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER'S "DELTA ROMANTICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.