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Age at First Drink Predicts Risk for Heavy Drinking

In the U.S., some alcohol consumers don’t take their first drink until they reach the end of their teenage years or the beginning of their 20s. However, many consumers take their first drink of alcohol at a much younger age. Addiction specialists and public health officials know that the early use of alcohol can have a range of harmful short- and long-term effects. In a study published in July 2014 in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers from Australia’s National Drug Research Institute specifically looked at the impact that early alcohol use has on the odds that a young adult will become a heavy drinker.

Early Alcohol Use

Statistically speaking, boys in the U.S. first consume alcohol in any amount while still pre-teenagers at age 11. Girls typically consume alcohol for the first time at the slightly older (but still very young) age of 13. When viewed from a historical perspective, these ages for initial alcohol experimentation are quite low. At one point in time, boys had a substantially higher chance of experimenting with alcohol at an early age when compared to girls. However, among older preteens and younger teenagers, the rate of experimentation is now essentially the same for both genders.

Current research indicates that any person who starts drinking before the age of 21 significantly increases his or her chances of developing serious alcohol problems at some point during adulthood. In addition to age at first drink, factors that contribute to an individual’s risk for problems include his or her family genetics, his or her racial/ethnic background, his or her gender (with specific risks for each sex), the unique mixture of his or her personality characteristics, his or her history of diagnosable mental illness and the alcohol-related attitudes of his or her friends and parents.

Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking is also known as at-risk drinking or excessive drinking. For men, commonly accepted public health guidelines designate this form of unhealthy alcohol use as the consumption of five or more drinks in one day or 15 or more drinks in one week. For women, public health guidelines designate heavy drinking as the consumption of four or more drinks in one day or eight or more drinks in one week. The most prominent danger associated with regularly consuming alcohol in these daily or weekly amounts is a steeply elevated chance of receiving a diagnosis for alcohol use disorder (combined or separate symptoms of alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism) at some later point in time.

Risks for Young Adults

In the study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, the National Drug Research Institute researchers used data from a long-term American project called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to investigate how a young adult’s age at first drink affects his or her chances of qualifying as a heavy drinker. Information was gathered from 2,316 participants in this study, which represents an ongoing attempt to measure the health changes that occur over time in a broad-based group of people who were enrolled in middle school or high school in 1994-1995. The researchers used the consumption of five or more drinks in a single day as their baseline definition for heavy drinking.

After completing their analysis of the data, the researchers concluded that anyone who first consumes alcohol before the age of 18 has a statistically higher chance of becoming a heavy drinker in young adulthood than a person who doesn’t start drinking at such an early age. This fact holds true even when all other potential influences on the risks for heavy drinking are taken into consideration.

The study’s authors believe that the link between consuming alcohol before the age of 18 and the chances of becoming a heavy-drinking young adult is likely not coincidental or a mere statistical happenstance. Instead, the consumption of alcohol at an early age appears to function as an actual cause of heavy drinking in early adulthood. Based on this finding, the authors believe that effective promotion of drinking abstinence in people under the age of 18 would probably contribute to a significant decline in the rates of alcohol use disorder found in adults. Ultimately, such a decline could spread across adult age groups and help trigger a general reduction in society’s exposure to alcohol-related harm.

Posted on September 24th, 2014

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