Worldwide, 3 million deaths every year result from the harmful use of alcohol. A new study from Carnegie Mellon University also suggests that drinking alone during adolescence and young adulthood strongly increases the risk for alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life. Women tend to have a high risk of AUD than men.
Doctors frequently screen young people for harmful alcohol use, but their questions have mostly focused on how often and how much alcohol is drunk. Lead author Kasey Creswell believes that a crucial but sometimes ignored predictor of future alcohol abuse is the social environment in which young people drink.
Creswell said, “Most young people who drink do it with others in social settings, but a substantial minority of young people drink alone. Solitary drinking is a unique and robust risk factor for future alcohol use disorder. 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.”
In collaboration with Yvonne Terry-McElrath and Megan Patrick at the University of Michigan, Creswell analyzed data from the Monitoring the Future study, an ongoing epidemiological study of drug and alcohol use among American youth followed into adulthood.
Approximately 4,500 adolescents (age 18) responded to surveys asking teenagers (aged 18) about their patterns of alcohol consumption and whether they drank alone. These participants were then monitored for 17 years. They provided details about their alcohol consumption, including information on drinking alone while they were young adults (ages 23 to 24), and reported AUD symptoms as adults (age 35).
Results demonstrated that compared to peers who only drank in social situations, adolescents and young adults who reported drinking alone were more likely to experience symptoms of AUD as adults. The researchers controlled numerous early risk factors for alcohol issues, including binge drinking and frequent drinking.
They discovered that young adults who drank alone had a 60% higher chance of developing AUD symptoms at age 35 than social drinkers and that the risks were 35% higher for adolescents. Female adolescents who drank alone looked particularly at risk for later adult alcohol issues.
Creswell said, “With concurrent increases in pandemic-related depression and anxiety, we may very well see an increase in alcohol problems among the nation’s youth.”
The results are available in the July journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence issue.