June 01, 2008
Early Drinking Tied To Greater Alcoholism Risk

Teens probably ought to avoid alcohol in order to lower risk of alcoholism.

Drinking at an early age can lead to later alcohol dependence

  • An early age at onset of drinking (AOD) is a strong predictor of subsequent alcohol dependence (AD).
  • New findings indicate that an early AOD among women born after 1944 may account for their increased rates of lifetime AD.
  • An earlier AOD may be connected to decreased minimum legal drinking age laws.
An early age at onset of drinking (AOD) is a strong predictor of subsequent alcohol dependence (AD). Following through on previous research that found substantial increases in drinking and AD among women born between 1944 - 1983, compared to women born between 1934 - 1943, this study examined the influence of AOD. Results showed that women born after 1944 also began drinking earlier than their predecessors, which might help to explain their higher rates of AD.

Results will be published in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at OnlineEarly.

“Previous work had found that about one in three individuals who reported having started drinking at ages 17 or younger also reported having been alcohol dependent, either currently or previously,” explained Richard A. Grucza, an epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine and the study’s corresponding author. “For people who reported that they started drinking at age 21 or older, that number is one in ten. In other words, individuals who begin drinking at 17 or younger are more than three times more likely to develop AD than those who begin at age 21 or older.”

“This manuscript has elegantly demonstrated that the reduction in AOD seen in women born after 1944 was associated with an increase in AD,” said Wilson M. Compton, director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research, at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “By analyzing information from two large studies [conducted 10 years apart], the researchers have disentangled when in history there was a change in AOD in comparison with rates of AD.”

The two large, national surveys used were the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES), conducted in 1991 and 1992; and the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), conducted in 2001 and 2002. Grucza and his colleagues looked at changes in AOD as well as the lifetime prevalence of AD, while simultaneously controlling for age-related factors.

I've come across similar research with addictive drugs used with animals. The developing brain is more susceptible to the effects of drugs and alcohol. Adult brains are less malleable and therefore less at risk from drug and alcohol exposure.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 June 01 10:40 PM  Brain Addiction

Guillaume Theoret said at June 3, 2008 2:39 PM:

I think you need to be very careful with the causal link on this one. There's a huge difference between the type of people that start drinking when they're underage and the type that start drinking much later. I'm not sure it's so much the effect the alcohol has on the developing brain as the social environment that let you and/or pushed you into underage drinking in the first place still being around.

peco said at June 3, 2008 6:23 PM:

How many people are AD? Even if early drinking increases AD by 500%, if only 0.1% of the population are AD, the effect wouldn't be very large. Increasing the drinking age affects far more people.

More realistically: If 2% of people have AD, and early drinking increases AD by 50%, the effect still wouldn't be large.

Randall Parker said at June 4, 2008 6:34 PM:


It is my understanding that they compared women who came of age before women started drinking sooner with women who came of age after women started drinking sooner. So that was a control for what sorts of women were more likely to drink sooner.

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