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Drinking alone during adolescence and young adulthood can strongly increase the risk for alcohol abuse later in life, especially if you are a woman, a new study finds.

Add that finding to the documented increase in drinking among Americans during the pandemic, and you have a worrisome situation, said lead study author Kasey Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Several studies have now shown that solitary drinking increased as a result of the pandemic,” likely due to the closure of bars and social venues during stay-at-home measures, Creswell said.

“Studies have also shown that the associations between solitary drinking and alcohol problems are stronger for young women compared to young men,” she said. “This is especially concerning given that there have been recent increases in solitary drinking among US female adolescents.”

Studies have also documented pandemic-related increases in stress, negative emotions and mental health concerns for many young people, Creswell said.

“The primary reason young people drink alone is to cope with negative emotions, and developing such a relationship with alcohol during the pandemic might place solitary drinkers on a trajectory of increased alcohol use, possibly resulting in more alcohol-related problems,” Creswell said. “And again this might be particularly the case for young women.”

A 17-year study

Creswell and a team from the University of Michigan analyzed data from the Monitoring the Future study, an ongoing investigation of 4,500 teens who were asked about their drinking habits while high school seniors. Additional data was gathered when participants were 22 to 23 years old and again when they were 35.

About 25% of teenagers and 40% of young adults who drink reported drinking alone, according to the study published Monday in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

When compared with people who only drank socially, the study found drinking alone as a high school senior raised the risk of alcohol use disorder by 35% by age 35. Alcohol use disorder, which is also called alcoholism, is defined as the inability to stop drinking even when it causes physical or emotional harm to the drinker or others.

The link was especially strong for teen girls, Creswell said.

“The odds of alcohol use disorder symptoms at age 35 was 86% higher for adolescent females (high school seniors) who drank alone. In contrast, the odds of alcohol use disorder symptoms at age 35 was only 8% higher for adolescent males who drank alone,” she said.

Drinking alone during a person’s early 20s raised the risk for alcohol use disorder by 60% compared with social drinkers, but this time there was no difference between men and women. The results held true even after other common risk factors were considered, Creswell said.

“Solitary drinking at younger ages is accounting for unique risk for future alcohol problems above and beyond earlier binge drinking and frequency of alcohol use, which are (both) well-known risk factors,” she said.

“This suggests that we should not only be asking young people about how much they are drinking and how frequently they are drinking in order to identify youth at risk, but that we need to also ask whether or not they are drinking alone,” Creswell said. “Drinking alone tells us quite a bit about future risk to develop alcohol problems.”

Pandemic drinking

Prior research showed a 41% increase in heavy drinking days among women since the onset of the pandemic. Part of the reason may be the “blurring” of boundaries between home and work for many women.

There is help. Find it here

  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a tool called the NIAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator that “helps adults find alcohol treatment for themselves or an adult loved one.” For teens, the institute recommends these resources.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free, confidential National Helpline active 24/7/365 to provide information and treatment referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations: 800-662-HELP (4357) and 800-487-4889 (TTY option).

  • “Studies have shown the complexities of balancing home, work and caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on women,” Dr. Leena Mittal told CNN in a prior interview. Mittal is chief of the women’s mental health division in the department of psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She was not associated with new study.

    A higher level of drinking in women is worrisome because of the known link between alcohol and the risk of female breast cancer, experts say.

    “There really is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to breast cancer,” Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN previously.

    If you (or a loved one) appear to be struggling with alcohol, don’t hesitate to reach out for help, experts say. There are many different support groups that can assist, such as 12-step programs and individual therapy.