Regularly drinking alone is a red flag for alcohol problems later on, study warns

PITTSBURGH — Sometimes when we’re alone with our thoughts, having a drink or two can sound fairly harmless. According to researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, however, drinking alone is a habit people should avoid. Their study found that solitary alcohol consumption during adolescence and young adulthood strongly increases a drinker’s risk for alcohol use disorder (AUD) later on in life.

This observed risk was especially prominent among women.

“Most young people who drink do it with others in social settings, but a substantial minority of young people are drinking alone. Solitary drinking is a unique and robust risk factor for future alcohol use disorder,” says lead author Kasey Creswell, associate professor of psychology at CMU, in a university release. “Even after we account for well-known risk factors, like binge drinking, frequency of alcohol use, socioeconomic status, and gender, we see a strong signal that drinking alone as a young person predicts alcohol problems in adulthood.”

Estimates show that excessive alcohol consumption has a link to three million deaths annually. Young people are an especially at-risk group when it comes to alcohol. While it’s true that doctors routinely screen teens for alcohol use, their questions almost always focus on frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption. Prof. Creswell believes that the settings in which people drink (either alone or with others) is an overlooked indicator of future alcohol misuse.

Drinking alone increases risk of drinking problems by a third

Prof. Creswell came together with University of Michigan researchers Yvonne Terry-McElrath and Megan Patrick to analyze data provided by the Monitoring the Future study, an ongoing epidemiological study focusing on drug and alcohol use tracking American youth as they mature into adulthood.

That data encompassed roughly 4,500 adolescents (age 18) who responded to surveys asking about their alcohol use patterns. Researchers tracked each respondent for the next 17 years. During that time, they collected periodic data pertaining to each person’s general alcohol use, their tendency to drink alone between the ages of 23 and 24, and any AUD symptoms by the age of 35.

The results revealed that both adolescents and young adults who drank alone were at an elevated risk of developing AUD symptoms as an adult in comparison to others who only drank in social settings. Researchers made sure to account for a variety of well-known early alcohol risk factors like binge drinking.

In comparison to social drinkers, a person’s chances of having AUD symptoms at age 35 were 35 percent higher for adolescents who often drank alone, and 60 percent higher among young adults drinking alone. Also, the study finds adolescent females who drank alone seemed to be at an even higher risk of developing alcohol problems later on in adulthood.

Pandemic drinking may be making things worse

Today, estimates show about 25 percent of adolescents and 40 percent of young adults drink alone. Study authors say this work suggests targeted interventions can help better inform young people about the potential long-term dangers linked to drinking alone. Prior research tells us that young people drink to cope with negative emotions, which is considered a common path toward alcoholism at any age. That’s not even mentioning the increases seen in solitary drinking among young people since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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

The study is published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

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