The stress of the pandemic could be prompting some people to turn to the bottle more often, researchers warn.
This is particularly problematic for people who live in areas where there are stay-at-home orders, especially for young adults, men, and people who have lost their jobs.
"Being under lockdown during a worldwide pandemic has been hard on everyone, and many people are relying on greater quantities of alcohol to ease their distress," said William "Scott" Killgore, a professor of psychiatry in the University of Arizona's College of Medicine and director of the university's Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab.
"We found that younger people were the most susceptible to increased alcohol use during the pandemic, which could set them on the dangerous path toward long-term alcohol dependence," he said in a university news release.
Killgore's team led a six-month study from April through September, in which nearly 6,000 adults from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., were surveyed. Each month, about 1,000 people completed the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, a 10-item questionnaire that detects hazardous drinking in adults.
The questions asked about the quantity of alcohol consumed, behaviors associated with dependence, and harm resulting from alcohol use. Scores range from 0 to 40. A score from 8 to 14 suggests hazardous alcohol consumption, 15 or more indicates likelihood of alcohol dependence and 20 or more suggests a severe alcohol use disorder.
For people not under lockdown restrictions, percentages stayed the same.
But for those under lockdown, hazardous alcohol use rose from 21% in April to 40.7% in September, and probable dependence rose from nearly 8% to just over 29%. Severe dependence rose from nearly 4% in April to 17.4% by September. Hazardous alcohol use and likely dependence increased every month for those under lockdowns compared to those under no restrictions.
Increased alcohol use can lead to numerous health problems, including increased risks of cancer, liver disease, injury, mental health problems, and early death. It can be a problem for the entire family, the researchers said.
"Being cooped up with family for weeks and months without a break can be difficult, but when excess alcohol gets mixed in, it can become a recipe for increased aggressive behavior and domestic violence," Killgore said. "I worry about the effect on families and children."
Alcohol abuse can also affect work, he added.
"Many of us are working from home, but this is not the same thing as being productive from home. The use of alcohol while 'on the job' at home is likely to reduce productivity at a time when the country needs us to be doing everything we can to sustain the economy," Killgore said.
"Having a few drinks while 'on the clock' at home can lead to a situation of 'presenteeism,' which means that a person may be sitting through Zoom meetings and responding to a few emails, but may not actually be contributing productively to their job," he noted. "This could severely hamper our ability to pull out of this crisis quickly and on a strong economic footing."
The findings were published in the February issue of the journal Psychiatry Research.