Drinking alcohol alone as a teenager may be a risk factor for alcohol use disorder (AUD) in adulthood according to a recent study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

While doctors usually screen for risky alcohol use behavior, they only ask about frequency and quantity, not about the social context. Previous studies found solitary alcohol use in adolescence and young adulthood may be associated with high-risk drinking and the development of alcohol problems later in life, but those studies were cross-sectional, not longitudinal.

To get more clarity on the topic, the researchers surveyed 12th grade high school students from 1976 to 2002 graduating classes and collected follow-up data at ages 23, 24 and 35. The researchers found 27.4% of high school students and 40.2% of young adults had drunk alcohol alone over the prior 12 months. The solo alcohol drinkers were more likely to binge drink (Est. 0.27, P < .001 and Est. 0.30, P < .001, respectively) than their peers.


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Of those who reported drinking alone, 32.8% of the teenagers were classified as having AUD symptoms at age 35. Among the young adults, 31.1% were classified as having AUD symptoms at age 35. Those figures are about one-and-a-half times higher than teenagers and young adults who did not drink alone.

While the study used large national samples, the self-report nature of the study may have affected its results. Also, the researchers did not assess AUD in adolescence or early adulthood; only at age 35.

“Identifying and responding to early risk factors for alcohol misuse is essential in order to prevent the development of AUD,” the researchers concluded. “Adolescent and young adult solitary alcohol use may be a ‘red flag’ indicative of emerging addictive pathology (ie, using alcohol to cope with negative emotions) that warrants early intervention. Understanding solitary alcohol use in young people may be critical for effective screening and intervention efforts to reduce AUD.”

Reference

Creswell KG, Terry-McElrath YM, Patrick ME. Solitary alcohol use in adolescence predicts alcohol problems in adulthood: A 17-year longitudinal study in a large national sample of US high school students. Published online July 8, 2022. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2022;109552. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2022.109552