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Drinking Alone? Better Buckle-Up

Drinking Alone? Better Buckle-Up

Some good folks at Carnegie Mellon University recently discovered that drinking alone during adolescence and young adulthood often foreshadows serious issues with alcohol. They also found the dangers are especially acute for young adults between the ages of 23 and 24.

“Solitary drinking is a unique and robust risk factor for future Alcohol Use Disorder,” said CMU’s Kasey Creswell, lead author of the study at hand. “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.”

Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, freely admits that most young people drink in social settings. But she also points out that more and more young folks are drinking alone. That unfortunate increase has of course only been expedited with the pandemic.

Drinking Alone: The Study

If we’re reading the research right, the revelations are sourced in a study called Monitoring the Future. That study, which began at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research back in 1975, was designed to discover the effects alcohol would have over the course of their life. It was – and continues to be – a rather extensive undertaking, backed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), as well as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). And it concerns thousands upon thousands of subjects, all of whom began participating between the ages of 18 and 25. In this instance, CMU’s Creswell joined Michigan’s Yvonne Terry-McElrath and Megan Patrick, and the team culled data from 4500 participants who’d been tracked for a full 17 years.

The results, as indicated, showed a marked predilection for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in adolescents and young adults who initially reported drinking alone. In fact, the odds a solitary drinker would develop AUD symptoms by age 35 were 35% higher for those who began as adolescents and 60% higher for those who continued through young adulthood. For some still unknown reason, adolescent female drink-alones appeared to be at particular risk for developing adult alcohol problems.

“About 25% of adolescents and 40% of young adults reported drinking alone,” ran CMU News’ Stacy Kish’s report. “These findings suggest targeted interventions may be helpful to educate and inform these groups, especially young women, of the risks of solitary drinking to prevent the development of AUD in the future.”

When Teens Drink Alone

“Previous work by Creswell and others has shown that young people drink alone as a way to cope with negative emotions,” continues Kish’s report. “We’re learning that kids who drink alone tend to do so because they’re feeling lonely, are in a bad mood, or had an argument with a friend,” she said then.

Creswell’s focus was then on teens, and she’d teamed with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. That study surveyed 709 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 at the Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center (PAARC). Those participants were first asked to report on their alcohol use in the past year. When the study subjects turned 25, they were again asked about their alcohol use. Then they were assessed for alcohol use disorders.

The findings? Solitary drinkers were one and a half times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at age 25.

The CMU/UPSM study included adolescents from clinical treatment programs, as well as the community. And 38.8 percent of those teens reported drinking alone during ages 12-18.

Adolescent solitary drinking is an early warning sign for alcohol use disorder, said UPSM professor Tammy Chung, co-author of that study. It also tends to occur in response to negative emotions. If we’re to prevent these teens from developing, she continues, we should use interventions that teach more adaptive strategies for coping with negative emotions.

That study’s findings were published in Clinical Psychological Science. The current study’s results can be found in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Healing Properties

Healing Properties thanks everyone involved in Monitoring the Future, from Carnegie Mellon’s Kasey Creswell and the University of Michigan’s Yvonne Terry-McElrath and Megan Patrick, to NIDA, NIAAA and the NIH itself. We also thank each and every one of the original 4500 study participants. Signing up in the first place was a bit of a brave move. Agreeing to be monitored for the subsequent 17 years was courage incarnate. That bravery not only ensured there was a study, but that the results could and would help people. A remarkable thing indeed.

We also thank University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine professor Tammy Chung, who teamed with Creswell in the 2013 teen study. We’re especially grateful to the 709 then-adolescents who stepped up at the Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center (which may or may not now be UPSM’s Developmental Alcohol Research Center). Their generosity helps fuel the research which helps us all, whether we drink or not. And it should be echoed, as well as recognized.

“Excessive alcohol use is a worldwide burden,” writes Kish, “contributing to 3 million deaths globally each year. Doctors often screen young people for risky alcohol use, but their questions have focused on the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed. Creswell believes the social context in which young people drink is a critical but often overlooked indicator of future alcohol misuse.”


How about you? Have you caught yourself drinking alone? Is it with more and more frequency? Would you like to stop before it becomes worse? Well, give us a ring. Please. We’ve been helping men quit drinking and drugging for 20 solid years. We’d be honored to help you too. Seriously.

(Image courtesy atmtx | flickr)

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