Drinking Alone as a Teen May Foreshadow Future Alcohol Problems

  • New research finds adolescents who drink alone are at much higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder in adulthood.
  • Female teens are at even greater risk.
  • The study looked at 4,000 individuals.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that drinking alone in adolescence and young adulthood could significantly increase our risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life.

“We were interested in determining whether adolescent solitary drinking would predict alcohol problems in adulthood using large, national samples of adolescents living all across the US,” lead study author Kasey Creswell, associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told Healthline.

The study was published July 11 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Creswell worked with researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to analyze data from the Monitoring the Future study, an epidemiological study of drug and alcohol use among American youth followed into adulthood.

About 4,500 18-year-olds completed surveys regarding their patterns of alcohol use and if they drank while alone.

Creswell said this study is “several times larger” than previously conducted research, and the sample analyzed is more representative of adolescents living in the US

“Our results are more compelling and conclusive than previous studies, especially because we controlled for well-established risk factors in our analyzes and still showed solitary drinking to predict alcohol problems,” she said.

Participants were followed for 17 years and provided information about alcohol use and drinking alone into their early twenties and reporting any AUD symptoms in adulthood (age 35).

According to the study, about 25% of adolescents and 40% of young adults reported drinking alone.

Researchers say the findings suggest targeted interventions could be helpful to educate and inform these groups, especially young women, about the risks of solitary drinking to prevent AUD in the future.

“I was surprised by the magnitude of the association between adolescent and young adult solitary drinking and alcohol problems in adulthood,” Creswell said.

Findings showed that adolescents and young adults who reported drinking alone were at greater risk for developing AUD symptoms in adulthood than peers who only drank in social settings.

Creswell and the team controlled for well-established early risk factors for alcohol problems, including binge drinking and frequent drinking.

They found the odds of developing AUD symptoms by age 35 were 35% higher for adolescents who drank alone and 60% higher for young adults who drank alone, compared to social-only drinkers.

However, adolescent females who drank alone appeared to have a higher risk for developing alcohol problems in adulthood.

“Female adolescents who drink alone are at particular risk,” said Creswell. “Which is especially concerning given increasing rates of solitary drinking among US adolescent females.”

“Women are catching up to men in alcohol use disorders,” said Moe Gelbart, PhD, director of the Behavioral Health Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California.

Dr. Gilbert explained that due to having less size and weight than men, as well as other biological differences, much less alcohol is needed for a woman to have alcohol-related problems.

“Potential high risk drinking for a woman is one drink per day, compared to two for a male,” he added. “The biological differences will mean that much less alcohol is needed to reach the same blood alcohol level as a male.”

Erin Goodhart, executive director of core programming for Caron Treatment Centers in Pennsylvania, said alcohol marketing targets women.

“Between the pandemic and the pressures of daily life, we need to find realistic ways to cope and prioritize wellness,” she said. “Women are caught in a perfect storm when it comes to alcohol because we are the target of millions of dollars of marketing that peg alcohol as the catch-all solution for our anxiety, stress, and even underlying trauma.”

Goodhart noted that women’s biological makeup and hormones mean they’re “significantly” more susceptible to developing an alcohol use disorder at a faster rate than men.

Jeff Leininger, NP, with Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in Menlo Park, California, said that for some people, drinking during the pandemic was another cycle in existing abuse patterns.

“The baked-in circuitry regulating dopamine, serotonin, GABA and glutamate transmission was already there, and the pandemic just added fuel to the fire,” he said. “For others, alcohol became a newer, maladaptive coping strategy.”

Leininger pointed out that the pandemic closed gyms and restaurants, and travel was restricted, leaving many to find relief in drinking.

“When fear and chaos surrounds,” he said. “Avoidance and escape is prized.”

Gelbart said one of the key elements of someone with an alcohol use disorder is a denial of the problem, so an unwillingness to get help is typical.

“You need to understand alcohol dependence and recognition that it’s not simply a choice or issue of willpower but an illness that requires help,” he said.

Gelbart recommends avoiding arguments about or judging the person’s actions and instead pointing out specific behaviors and letting them know how you feel and how others close to that person feel.

“Ask them to seek out a qualified professional with expertise in substance abuse and get an evaluation, letting them know that you will accept those findings if the doctor feels there is no issue or problem,” he said.

For those who recognize they have a problem with alcohol, Gelbart advises they get support for themselves and learn how to deal with the problem by attending Al-Anon meetings.

“If the situation persists, you can consult with a professional for a formal intervention,” he said.

New research finds adolescents who drink alone are at much higher risk of developing AUD in adulthood, and female adolescents are at even greater risk.

Experts say this is because women can drink much less to reach a problematic blood alcohol level.

They also say the pandemic made things much worse by restricting travel and closing gyms, so people had fewer options to deal with stress.

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