Researchers found that teens who frequently drink alone are at higher risk of developing alcohol use disorders later in life. In the journal Alcoholism, a study was published: Clinical & Experimental Research and analyzed approximately 5,000 teenagers over five years to determine if their drinking habits affected their risk of alcohol use disorders (AUDs). As a result of the study, teens who drank alone had a greater risk of getting AUDs than those who didn’t, and binge drinking was only associated with AUDs if it occurred in private.
About 3 in 10 high school students drink alcohol
The United States has a high level of underage drinking, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to a 2019 survey of high school students, 29 percent reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, and 14 percent admitted to binge drinking. In binge drinking, a person drinks enough that his/her blood alcohol concentration reaches .08 percent or more. Normally, for men it is five drinks or more, and for women it is four drinks or more, generally within two hours.
While doctors often screen young people for risky alcohol use, the primary focus is usually on the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption, according to the authors. For Creswell, the context in which young people drink is a critical, but often overlooked, factor in predicting future alcohol abuse.
Meaning of Alcohol Use Disorder
The alcohol use disorder, or AUD (previously known as alcoholism), is a chronic brain disease that can go into remission, but it cannot be cured. In 2019, an estimated 14.1 million people in the United States had AUD, as reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
During the short-term, binge drinking can cause injuries, accidents, alcohol poisoning, risky sexual behaviors, and violence, per the CDC. Too much alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of liver disease, certain types of cancer, and heart disease. Drinking too much impacts mental health too and increases the risk of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.
Having a drink alone ‘Is an early warning sign’
Investigators analyzed data from Monitoring the Future, an ongoing epidemiological study that follows American teenagers into adulthood. In the study, 4 464 participants were 18 years old (referred to as adolescents in the survey) , which included questions about their patterns of drinking and whether they consumed alcohol alone.
Following this, participants were followed for 17 years, answering questions on their alcohol use and drinking habits in young adulthood (ages 23 or 24) and then in adulthood, at age 35, answering questions about their drinking habits and symptoms of alcoholism.
About 25 percent of adolescents and 40 percent of young adults reported drinking alone, and these individuals were at greater risk of developing AUD symptoms in adulthood when compared with those drinking in social settings only.
After controlling for the influence of other factors that could drive future alcohol use problems, researchers found that adolescents and young adults who drank alone were 35% and 60% more likely, respectively, to have alcohol use disorder symptoms in adulthood, compared with social-only drinkers.
“Solitary drinking continues to predict increased risk despite earlier binge drinking, how often they consume alcohol, and a host of demographic variables like sex and socioeconomic status. It’s significant that consuming alcohol alone as a young person is an early warning sign that we should pay attention to, says Creswell.
Drinking alone may put youth at risk for increased drinking and alcohol problems, she says. “Adolescent females who drink alone seem particularly at risk, and not only because they are more likely to self-medicate with alcohol. More research needs to be done to explore why young females are at increased risk.”
Increased alcohol problems may result from pandemic drinking habits
Although the data used in this study is pre-pandemic, the alcohol consumption patterns that were recorded before COVID-19 could mean more alcohol problems in the future, says Creswell. The researchers observed an increase in solitary drinking among young people because bars and restaurants closed and stay-at-home directives were implemented, as well as heightened stress and negative emotions associated with the pandemic, she says.
Creswell adds: with concurrent rises in depression and anxiety linked to the pandemic, we may well see a rise in alcohol problems among young people.
If you are concerned that your child is exhibiting problematic drinking habits that go beyond “just experimenting,” the Partnership to End Addiction highly recommends seeking medical assistance.
For more information on AUD and where to find help, Creswell recommends the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and Rethinking Drinking.