Pandemic Leads to Long-Term Reduction in Alcohol Use and Related Problems Among Heavy-Drinking Young Adults

A new study published in the journal Nature Mental Health has found that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant and sustained decrease in alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems among heavy-drinking young adults. The study prospectively examined the drinking patterns of 234 individuals aged 21 to 29 years from before to well after the onset of the pandemic, providing unique insights into the impact of widespread mitigation measures on alcohol use.

Significant Decreases in Alcohol Consumption and Related Problems

The study participants, who reported binge drinking at least four times in the month prior to the pandemic, significantly reduced how much and how often they were drinking after the onset of the pandemic. On average, they decreased their monthly alcohol consumption by nearly 13 drinks and reported fewer alcohol-related problems. Remarkably, these reductions were still evident up to two years after the start of the pandemic.

“The pandemic gave us a unique opportunity to see how wide-spread mitigation measures like social distancing and bar/restaurant closures may have affected alcohol consumption,” said lead author Kasey Creswell, associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Social Nature of Drinking and the Importance of Context

The researchers suggest that the changes in drinking patterns may be explained by the altered social environment during the pandemic. With restrictions in place, young adults were unable to drink with friends at parties or in bars, contexts typically associated with heavy alcohol use in this age group.

“Alcohol is a social drug,” said Aidan Wright, the Phil F. Jenkins Research Professor of Depression at the Eisenberg Family Depression Center and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “These results highlight the social nature of drinking and speak to the importance of the social context in driving drinking behavior.”

The study also found significant decreases in negative emotions during the pandemic but did not find any change in the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism. While solitary drinking did increase by 4% during the pandemic, the researchers believe this is less of a signal of problematic behavior and more a result of pandemic-related restrictions on social drinking settings.

“Drinking to cope is the main reason young people engage in solitary drinking,” said Creswell. “But in this study, we actually saw a decrease in drinking to cope motives along with decreases in negative affectivity, so we think this increase in solitary drinking is less of a signal of something problematic happening and more a result of pandemic-related restrictions on social drinking settings.”

The study is limited to drinking-age adults in a primarily white population, and future studies are needed to evaluate the effect of the pandemic on alcohol consumption and related problems in different populations. Nevertheless, the findings provide valuable insights into the potential long-term benefits of social distancing measures on heavy drinking behaviors among young adults.

Keyword/Phrase: Pandemic Impact on Young Adult Drinking

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