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Isolation and loneliness as pathways to heavy drinking early in the pandemic.

INTRODUCTION: social isolation and forced quarantines during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a steep and persistent rise in alcohol consumption among US adults. While the association between loneliness and drinking is well established, less is known about the impact of social isolation (a known correlate of loneliness) and the interplay between these two variables in relation to drinking.

METHODS: we recruited US adults using the MTurk platform for an online survey in early April 2020. The initial survey was followed up with a second wave, 30 days later in mid to late May. Data from the current analyses focus on this second wave of data collection.

RESULTS: we found significant direct effects on heavy drinking for both social isolation (c' = 0.495; P < .01) and loneliness (b = 0.071; P < .05). We also found a significant indirect path from social isolation to heavy drinking through social isolation's impact on elevating loneliness (a = 0.919; P < .001). The indirect effect of social isolation on the composite measure of heavy drinking was 0.0652 (0.919 × 0.071) and was significant at the 0.05 level after bootstrapping estimates of the variance were constructed.

CONCLUSIONS: those most isolated early in the pandemic were at increased risk for heavy drinking, in part because their social isolation led to increased loneliness. Post-pandemic research is needed to explore whether the relationships that stemmed from social isolation during the pandemic led to a persistent pattern of behavioral risk that maintained high rates of heavy drinking.

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