Did the COVID-19 pandemic increase drunkness among people with a history of alcohol use disorder?

The ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, caused by a rapid outbreak of severe acute respiratory disease coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), has claimed more than 6.9 million lives worldwide.

Scientists worldwide have continued to assess the impact of this pandemic on society at large, which could help formulate effective preventive strategies.

A recent Translational Psychiatry study investigated how COVID-19-related stressors altered drunkenness frequency among men and women with or without a history of alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Study: COVID-19 pandemic stressors are associated with reported increases in frequency of drunkenness among individuals with a history of alcohol use disorder. Image Credit: PopTika/Shutterstock.comStudy: COVID-19 pandemic stressors are associated with reported increases in frequency of drunkenness among individuals with a history of alcohol use disorder. Image Credit: PopTika/Shutterstock.com

Background

To prevent further transmission of SARS-CoV-2, many countries' governments implemented strategies that caused significant disruptions in daily social activities, domestic and international traveling, schooling, and employment.

Previous studies have indicated that mass traumatic events (e.g., public shootings and 9/11 terrorist attacks) and viral outbreaks (e.g., the SARS epidemic) have led to an increase in alcohol use, particularly among individuals with a history of AUD. 

Although some studies have indicated an increase in alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic, not many studies have investigated the impact of this pandemic on vulnerable groups, particularly those with AUD.

Stressful events have been linked with the recurrence of AUD. Therefore, it is important to determine the specific COVID-19 stressor that enhances alcohol misuse, as this information will help formulate an effective strategy to mitigate this risk.

A recent study has indicated that approximately 50% of adults who recovered from a substance use disorder reported cravings during the COVID-19 isolation period.

The enhancement in alcoholic cravings was linked to loneliness, financial stress, and lack of support. Furthermore, this pandemic significantly stalled access to mutual-help groups and specialized AUD treatments.

About the study

The current study investigated the association between COVID-19-related stressors and changes in drunkenness frequencies in men and women with or without a history of AUD during the pandemic. 

The pre-pandemic data assessed in this study was obtained from the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) study. COGA was initiated in 1990 when 17,000 individuals were recruited from families impacted by AUD and the general community for comparison purposes.

All participants underwent a clinical assessment for substance use and psychiatric evaluation based on the Semi-Structured Assessment for the Genetics of Alcoholism (SSAGA) research interview.

Furthermore, DNA samples were collected, and an EEG of the brain was performed during the resting state. In 2019, one-time follow-ups of COGA participants were conducted in two stages, i.e., participants above 50 years of age and those between 30 and 40 years of age.

The majority of participants in the first group had a history of AUD, while half of the second group experienced a lifetime history of AUD.

In May 2020, the Coronavirus Health Impact Survey (CRISIS) and the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD) survey were conducted using COGA participants. 

Participants were divided into subgroups based on a lifetime history of AUD or without a history of AUD, those who experienced AUD symptoms during COVID-19 assessments, and those under remission and who had not consumed alcohol for more than five years.

Study findings

In the study cohort, the average age of the participants was 51 years, and most participants (62%) were women.

In comparison to those without a lifetime history of AUD, non-remitted individuals with a history of AUD exhibited a greater increase in drunkenness frequency during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, no increase in alcohol consumption was observed in participants who had remission from their AUD.

The change in alcohol use frequency among participants with a history of AUD and in remission prior to the pandemic had been attributed to COVID-19-related stressors and coping activities.

Among the remitted-abstinent group, participants who were essential workers were associated with increased drunkenness. In line with previous studies' findings, this study indicated that widespread stressors disproportionately influence alcohol use and mental health conditions, particularly those with a history of AUD.

COVID-19-related stressors and coping activities did not significantly impact individuals without a history of AUD, and as a result, there was no increase in alcohol use in this group.

It must be noted that in remitted abstinent men, the relationship quality with family members and friends led to a decrease in drunkenness. Social disconnection also led to an increase in drunkenness among remitted-abstinent women.

Compared to women without a history of AUD, women with AUD symptoms were more vulnerable to increased drunkenness frequency during the pandemic. 

Conclusions

This study highlighted that compared to men, increased drunkenness frequency was more prevalent in women with current AUD. Perceived stress, essential worker status, and media consumption were primary factors that increased drunkenness among remitted pregnant women.

In contrast, perceived stress alone was associated with increased drunkenness in remitted-drinking men. Social disconnection and relationship quality are other factors that influence drunkenness among women and men respectively. 

This study revealed that COVID-19-related stress factors have increased drunkenness frequency in participants with a lifetime history of AUD.

The rate of alcoholism could be reduced by formulating interventions focussed on the identified stress factors, including media consumption, social disconnection, perceived stress, and relationship quality.

Journal reference:
Dr. Priyom Bose

Written by

Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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