The findings of new research suggest that experiencing loneliness as a pre-adolescent child can develop a drinking problem later in early adulthood.
Alcohol misuse is not the only health problem connected to loneliness. In older adults, loneliness contributes to poor physical health, including dementia, heart disease and stroke. Researchers from Arizona State University examined the effects of experiencing childhood loneliness on current stress levels and drinking behaviours in young adults. The study will be published in Addictive Behaviours Reports.
"In young adults, childhood loneliness before age 12 was associated with perceived stress right now and affected dysregulated drinking," said Julie Patock-Peckham, assistant research professor in the ASU Department of Psychology.
Because stress affects whether people drink to excess, especially women, the research team tested whether past experiences with loneliness impacted the stress people feel today.
Over 300 college students participated in the study, completing assessments of childhood loneliness, current stress levels and drinking behaviours. Feeling lonely in the past was related to present-day stress levels and drinking behaviours.
Higher levels of loneliness before age 12 predicted more stress in early adulthood that was associated with greater alcohol use and alcohol-related problems.
"The data used in this study were collected before the pandemic, and the findings suggest that we could have another public health crisis on our hands in a few years as today's children grow up," Patock-Peckham said.
"We need more research into whether mitigating childhood loneliness could be a way to disrupt the pathways that lead to alcohol use disorders in adults. Combating childhood loneliness should help to reduce impaired control over drinking, especially among women."