PITTSBURGH— Sometimes, when we’re alone with our thoughts, having a drink or two can seem harmless enough. According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, however, drinking alone is a habit people should avoid. Their study found that solitary drinking during adolescence and early adulthood strongly increases the risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life.
This observed risk was particularly significant in women.
“Most young people who drink do so with others in social settings, but a significant minority of young people drink alone. Solitary drinking is a unique and robust risk factor for future alcohol use disorder,” said lead author Kasey Creswell, associate professor of psychology at CMU, in an academic statement. “Even after taking into account well-known risk factors, such as excessive alcohol consumption, frequency of alcohol consumption, socioeconomic status and gender, we see a strong signal that drinking alone as a that young predicts alcohol problems in adulthood.”
Estimates show that excessive alcohol consumption is linked to three million deaths per year. Young people are a particularly at-risk group when it comes to alcohol. While it’s true that doctors routinely examine teenagers for alcohol consumption, their questions almost always relate to the frequency and amount of alcohol consumption. Professor Creswell thinks the environments in which people drink (alone or with others) are an overlooked indicator of future alcohol abuse.
Drinking alone increases the risk of alcohol problems by a third
Professor Creswell met with University of Michigan researchers Yvonne Terry-McElrath and Megan Patrick to analyze the data provided by the Follow-up of the study of the futurean ongoing epidemiological study focusing on drug and alcohol use by following young Americans as they reach adulthood.
These data included approximately 4,500 teenagers (aged 18) who completed surveys about their drinking habits. The researchers followed each respondent for the next 17 years. During this time, they collected periodic data on each person’s general alcohol consumption, their tendency to drink alone between the ages of 23 and 24, and any symptoms of AUD at the age of 35.
The results revealed that teenagers and young adults who drank alone had a higher risk of developing AUD symptoms in adulthood compared to others who drank only socially. The researchers made sure to consider a variety of well-known early alcohol-related risk factors, such as heavy drinking.
Compared to social drinkers, the odds of having AUD symptoms at age 35 were 35% higher in teenagers who often drank alone, and 60% higher in young adults who drank alone. Additionally, the study finds that teenage girls who drank alone appeared to be at even greater risk of developing alcohol problems later in adulthood.
Pandemic drinking can make things worse
Today, estimates show that about 25% of teenagers and 40% of young adults drink alone. The study authors say this work suggests that targeted interventions can help better educate young people about the potential long-term harms of drinking alcohol alone. Previous research tells us that young people drink to cope with negative emotions, which is believed to be a common pathway to alcoholism at any age. That’s not even mentioning the increases seen in solitary drinking among young people since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the simultaneous increase in pandemic-related depression and anxiety, we could very well see an increase in alcohol problems among young people across the country,” concludes Professor Creswell.
The study is published in the journal Addiction to drugs and alcohol.