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Is the coronavirus pandemic driving people to drink?
Yes, a new U.S. survey shows, and the greatest spike in alcohol use is being seen in women.
Overall, there was a 14% jump in drinking frequency this past spring among U.S. adults over 30 when compared to last year at the same time, researchers found. Among women, drinking frequency went up 17%.
But excessive alcohol use among women really stood out. During the early months of the pandemic, there was a 41% rise in how often women indulged in binge drinking, meaning having four or more drinks in under two hours. That translated into one in five women drinking heavily one more day each month than they had a year earlier.
"Our study shows that people drank more frequently, and for women in particular, more heavily, and with more negative consequences, during the initial stages of COVID-19 compared to their own behaviors from a year earlier," said study author Michael Pollard.
"Women also reported a 39% increase in alcohol-related problems, such as 'I took foolish risks' or 'I failed to do what was expected of me' because of drinking alcohol," Pollard added.
In the survey, over 1,500 men and women were asked about their drinking habits in May and June. Nearly six in 10 survey participants were women, and about 54% were between the ages of 30 and 59.
The findings showed that, on average, three out of four adults said they had consumed alcohol one day more per month in spring 2020 than they had in spring 2019.
The survey itself did not assess why and it does not prove that the pandemic is actually causing alcohol use to rise, noted Pollard, a sociologist with the RAND Corp. He is a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, Calif.
"People sheltering at home might also just be bored, and drinking was an activity they could still do," he added. "In that respect, the results are not surprising. They make sense."
Pollard also offered some theories regarding shifting trends among women.
"The first possibility is that women typically report higher levels of depression and anxiety than men, in general," he said. That may have made women particularly vulnerable to mental health issues during COVID-19, he suggested, "which is similarly being met with greater alcohol use to cope in response."
Women also generally drink less than men, Pollard noted. And that could mean that otherwise similar jumps in alcohol consumption "will represent a proportionately larger change for women than for men."
But whatever the underlying causes, "these changes in alcohol consumption may have negative implications for people's physical health as well as mental health," Pollard cautioned. "It is important for health practitioners and the public to be aware of these increases, and their health risks."
That concern was echoed by Lona Sandon, program director in the department of clinical nutrition within the school of health professions at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.
"Upping the alcohol ups the calories," she noted. "This could lead to weight gain from excess alcohol calories. Also, when people drink more alcohol they tend to eat more, and usually less healthy food choices, high in fat and salt."
In addition, Sandon said, "Alcohol may increase blood pressure, decrease ability to control blood glucose if you have diabetes, cause restless sleep, increase forgetfulness, and cause a loss of muscle."
Still, Sandon said the findings were not exactly shocking.
"Given other reports of increased anxiety, stress and depression resulting from COVID shutdowns, rioting in the streets and concerns about the economy, I would say it is expected," she said. "People are struggling with ways to cope, and may turn to alcohol to cope and relax."
The report by Pollard and his colleagues was published online Sept. 29 in JAMA Network Open.
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