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One in three increased alcohol consumption during lockdown, University of Cambridge study finds

More than one in three adults drank more alcohol during the first lockdown, a University of Cambridge study has found.

Older people - who may have felt particularly isolated - tended to increase their alcohol consumption more than younger people.

Women tended to increase their consumption more than men during lockdown, the study found
Women tended to increase their consumption more than men during lockdown, the study found

And those with children reported a greater increase, possibly reflecting the need for stress relief in the wake of the need for home schooling.

The researchers analysed responses from 1,346 people around the world to an online survey between May 14 and 28. They were asked to compare their drinking habits in lockdown with a typical week from November 2019 - before Covid-19.

The survey assessed the amount consumed, drinking severity and mental health factors such as depression and anxiety.

Samantha N Sallie, the study’s first author and a PhD student at the Department of Psychiatry, said: “While in countries such as Canada and the USA people drank less during lockdown, in the UK there was a small increase in alcohol consumption.”

Globally, the number of units consumed fell from a mean average of 8.32 units in November to 8.03 during lockdown. In the UK, however, it rose from 10.94 to 11.25.

Meanwhile, 36 per cent of respondents around the world said they increased their consumption during lockdown.

Older people increased their consumption from 10 to 11 units weekly, potentially reflecting their concern over the greater risk of Covid-19 they faced, or a sense of loneliness from the need for more stringent isolation.

Those with children upped their alcohol intake by between 0.54 and 2.02 units but their depression and anxiety scores were lower than for people without children.

“For parents having to take on extra childcare responsibilities during lockdown, possibly at the same time as having to manage changes to their work routine, it’s possible that the extra stress increased their tendency to drink,” said Sallie. “On the other hand, having children may mitigate against loneliness that has been highlighted as a major issue during the isolation of lockdown.”

Alcohol intake decreased globally during lockdown - but not in the UK
Alcohol intake decreased globally during lockdown - but not in the UK

Healthcare workers responsible for taking care of individuals with Covid-19 increased their intake by between 0.45 and 1.26 units, while those whose loved ones became severely ill or died from the virus had more ‘problem drinking’ episodes during lockdown where, for example, they had memory loss or could not take personal responsibility.

Men consumed more than women but actually drank less during lockdown and had fewer ‘severe’ episodes. Women demonstrated the opposite trend, consuming an extra unit a week, corroborating evidence that women are more likely than men to consume alcohol to cope with stress.

Those with a change in their employment status or isolating alone were more likely to have higher depression scores, but showed no change in their drinking behaviour.

Individuals isolating with others but reporting a poor relationship were more likely to have higher depression and anxiety scores.

Dr Valerie Voon, senior author of the study from the University of Cambridge, said: “As Covid-19 remains part of daily life, many of us are turning to alcohol to cope with stress. For many people, drinking in moderation can be help with stress relief, but for others it can be more problematic.

“Alcohol misuse is a major public health issue in the United Kingdom, costing £21-52billion with NHS costs of £3.5billion per year. Our findings highlight a need to identify those individuals who are at risk for problem drinking so we can offer them greater support during the ongoing pandemic.”

The researchers suggested the overall decrease in alcohol consumption and problematic use could be due to lockdown measures reducing availability of alcohol in households, and because people tend to consume alcohol in social situations, such as at the pub or when eating out.

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