Disturbed gait and balance are among the most consistent sequelae of chronic alcoholism. However, although a majority of alcoholics have never sought treatment, most investigations showing ataxia in alcohol-dependent individuals have relied on samples drawn from treated populations. In addition, few studies have addressed the associations of codependence on other drugs with alcoholic gait and balance disturbance.
This study employed the Walk-a-Line Ataxia Battery (Fregly et al. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1972;43:395–399) to assess gait and balance in treatment-naïve, actively drinking alcohol-dependent men and women (TNA; n = 69) who were dependent on alcohol only (ALC; n = 43), or who also had a lifetime drug dependence (ALC + DRG; n = 26; i.e., methamphetamine, cocaine, opiates, and/or marijuana), compared with nonsubstance abusing controls (NSAC; n = 74).We also examined associations between lifetime alcohol use and age with gait and balance measures.
Our main findings were (i) no evidence of disturbed gait and balance in ALC versus NSAC and (ii) significantly disturbed gait and balance in ALC + DRG, relative to both NSAC and ALC, along with steeper age-associated decline in gait and balance performance in ALC versus ALC + DRG.
Our results provide evidence consistent with previous studies that TNA (without a lifetime drug codependence) may represent a population that is different and less impaired (including in gait and balance) than treated alcoholics. Additionally, we provide evidence that ALC + DRG, with greater alcohol use and family drinking density than ALC, have an accelerated effect of age on gait and balance disturbance compared with both NSAC and ALC. The ALC + DRG group likely represents a subset of TNA with different characteristics than ALC.