Some Americans hardest-hit
by the recent recession may have turned to alcohol to deal with their problems,
a new study suggests.
The study, of almost 5 400
US adults, found that those who lost a job or a home during the 2008-2009
recession had higher rates of problem drinking – such as getting drunk or
getting into accidents. The problem was mainly seen among people in their 30s
and 40s, and men were more affected than women.
The findings do not prove
that the recession is to blame for people's alcohol problems, according to lead
researcher Nina Mulia, a scientist with the Alcohol Research Group in
"The most obvious
alternative explanation would be that pre-existing drinking problems led people
to lose their job and housing," Mulia said.
On the other hand, she
added, "we also know that people drink to relax or to cope with stress and
tension. And so it wouldn't be surprising if people who are dealing with severe
stress – who were actually affected by job or housing loss – would turn to
Whatever the reasons, Mulia
said the findings suggest that during economic hard times, doctors should pay
special attention to screening patients for alcohol problems.
Government health survey
The results, published
online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research,
are based on a government health survey done in 2009-2010. Of almost 5 400
adults, close to 18% said they'd lost a job or housing due to the recession.
Overall, those people were
around three times more likely to report symptoms of alcohol dependence, or
admit to at least two "negative drinking consequences" – for
example, getting into fights or accidents, being arrested or suffering health problems.
When the researchers dug
deeper, they found that men were particularly likely to report those issues.
They were also more likely to get drunk at least once a month, versus men who
were unaffected by the recession.
The findings also varied by
age. People in their 30s or 40s who'd lost a job or home reported more
drunkenness, alcohol dependence and other problems. In contrast, both younger
and older adults showed relatively few effects; older adults who'd lost
retirement savings drank more often than their peers, but did not report more
Moving back in with parents
"We know that during
the recession, many young folks were moving back in with their parents,"
Mulia noted. So that support might have helped those in that age group.
In contrast, she said,
middle-aged adults typically have their own families to support, and generally
bigger expenses. And for men that age, job loss may be especially stressful.
Even in two-earner homes,
Mulia said, men are often the "primary breadwinner", and feel a heavy
burden from not being able to fill that role.
Still, even though there's
a logic to the findings, they run counter to the "prevailing wisdom",
according to Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the University of
California, San Francisco School of Medicine.
Smoking rates decrease
In general, low-income
adults smoke and drink less than higher-income people, and studies have found
that during economic hard times, smoking rates go down – possibly because
people have less to spend on cigarettes.
But this study makes one
thing clear, according to Schmidt: The relationship between a bad economy and
drinking is "really complicated".
Not only are different
people affected differently, Schmidt said, but there may also have been
something unique about this most recent recession.
"It wasn't just your
own job; you were seeing the people around you losing theirs, too,"
Schmidt said. "And we had a slow recovery."This study did not measure
people's stress levels, she noted, but it's possible that this latest downturn
hit some Americans particularly hard. The types of hardships linked to drinking
problems – job loss and housing loss – are especially stressful, Schmidt
Schmidt agreed that the
findings underscore the importance of screening for and treating alcohol
problems, especially when the economy is bad. Primary care doctors can screen
patients with just a few simple questions, Schmidt said. And for people who
have milder drinking problems, counselling from their own doctor may be enough.
"Even a 10-minute
conversation with your doctor can help someone who is not severely
dependent," Schmidt said.
The US National Institute
on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more on problem drinking.