One’s drinking habits may depend on where they live, study finds

SEATTLE, WA — The amount of alcohol a person regularly consumes is often linked to personal battles or other traits, but a new study finds that where one lives can also play a significant role in their drinking habits.

Researchers from the University of Washington predicted that neighborhoods with little-to-no organization and higher poverty levels are more likely to have residents with unhealthier drinking levels. While poverty and the use of alcohol have been connected, other factors relating to a person’s environment can play a strong role, as well.

Man drinking alcohol on the street
A new study finds that a person’s drinking habits may be heavily influenced by characteristics of the neighborhood that they live in.

The authors studied a cohort of 531 adults who resided in the greater Seattle area and took part in a long-running research group that followed them from the fifth-grade into adulthood. The group was split about even between genders, while 60 percent of the group overall was African-American.

Data from the U.S. census was used to extrapolate information about the neighborhoods each participant lived in and others who reside in each community. Researchers also questioned participants about the amount of alcohol they consumed. This information helped them categorize the neighborhoods by disorganization, alcohol availability, and level of poverty.

Factors for disorganization included negative traits like crime, vandalism, and reports of drug dealing. Study co-author Rick Kosterman, a research scientist at the university who specializes in social work, notes that poorer neighborhoods aren’t always disorganized — such communities often carry outspoken leaders and well-run facilities for lower income residents.

Still, Kosterman and his team ultimately found that people who live neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and disorganization tend to drink twice as much during the week than a person from a different neighborhood background. Binge drinking was especially prevalent in such areas, with residents consuming too much alcohol in one sitting four times as frequently as people in other areas.

Interestingly, the team also determined that people who live in neighborhoods that have more liquor stores nearby didn’t necessarily drink more than those who had less access to booze.

“On its face, the connection between poverty and disorganization and alcohol use may not be all that surprising,” explains Kosterman in a university release. “But when you find that this connection may be even more important than the location of bars and liquor stores, then it’s those characteristics of a neighborhood that we want to pay attention to.”

The results led the authors to believe that taking steps to uplift a neighborhood and improve the quality of life for its residents — such as regular neighborhood cleanups or greater access to social services for struggling residents — could curb unhealthy drinking habits.

“Is there something about the neighborhood itself that can lead to problems? As we learn more about those neighborhood factors that are relevant, then this might point to population-level strategies to modify or improve the environments where people live,” says Isaac Rhew, a research assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the university.

The study’s findings were published in May in the Journal of Urban Health.