TUESDAY, Nov. 19, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- 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 U.S. 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 Emeryville, Calif.
"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 alcohol."
Whatever the reasons, Mulia said the findings suggest that during economic hard times, doctors should pay special attention to screening patients for alcohol problems.
The results, published online Nov. 19 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 percent 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 consequences.
"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.
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 noted.
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, counseling 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 U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more on problem drinking.