Drinking alone is a harbinger of future alcohol problems

A new study from Carnegie Mellon University found that drinking alone during adolescence and young adulthood greatly increases the risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life. This risk is especially high for women. The results are available in the July issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“Most young people who drink do it together with others in social situations, but a significant minority of young people drink alone. Lonely drinking is a unique and robust risk factor for future alcohol use disorders,” said lead author Kasey Creswell, associate professor of psychology at CMU. “Even after taking into account known risk factors, such as binge drinking, frequency of alcohol use, socioeconomic status and gender, we see a strong signal that drinking only as younger predicts alcohol problems in adulthood.”

Excessive alcohol consumption is a global burden, contributing to 3 million deaths worldwide every year. Doctors often screen young people for risky alcohol use, but their questions focus on the frequency and amount of alcohol consumed. Creswell believes that the social context in which young people drink is a critical but often overlooked indicator of future alcohol abuse.

Creswell joined Yvonne Terry-McElrath and Megan Patrick at the University of Michigan to analyze data from the Monitoring the Future study, an ongoing epidemiological survey of drug and alcohol use among American youth into adulthood. About 4,500 adolescents (aged 18) responded to surveys asking about their patterns of alcohol consumption and whether they drank alcohol while alone. These participants were then followed for 17 years, providing information about their alcohol use and drinking alone in young adulthood (23/24 years) and reporting AUD symptoms in adulthood (35 years).

The results showed that adolescents and young adults who reported drinking alone had an increased risk of developing AUD symptoms in adulthood compared to their peers who drank only in social settings. The team controlled for many established early risk factors for alcohol problems, such as binge drinking and frequent drinking. They found that the odds of AUD symptoms at age 35 were 35% higher for adolescents who drank alone, and 60% higher for young adults who drank alone, compared to social drinkers alone. Adolescent women who drank alone seemed to be at particular risk of developing future alcohol problems in adulthood.

About 25% of adolescents and 40% of young adults reported drinking alone. These findings suggest that targeted interventions may be useful to educate and educate these groups, especially young women, about the risks of solitary drinking to prevent the development of AUD in the future.

Previous work by Creswell and others has shown that young people only drink as a way of coping with negative emotions, a pattern of alcohol consumption that has been consistently associated with the development of alcohol problems. Creswell noted that the pandemic has increased solitary drinking among young people.

“With concurrent increases in pandemic-related depression and anxiety, we may very well see an increase in alcohol problems among the country’s youth,” Creswell said.

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