Risk of alcoholism risk in adulthood is linked to drinking in the adolescent years

November 6, 2006

A recent survey of 43,000 adults in the United States showed that those who begin drinking alcohol in their early adolescent years are at greater risk of an alcohol-related problem later. Furthermore, those who abused alcohol during their adolescent years were not only at greater risk of alcohol dependence at some point during their life but were also at greater risk of, first, dependence more quickly and at a younger age and second, chronic, relapsing dependence. Among all respondents who developed alcoholism at some point, almost half-47%-met diagnostic criteria for alcoholism by the time they were 21 years old.

A recent survey of 43,000 adults in the United States showed that those who begin drinking alcohol in their early adolescent years are at greater risk of an alcohol-related problem later. Furthermore, those who abused alcohol during their adolescent years were not only at greater risk of alcohol dependence at some point during their life but were also at greater risk of, first, dependence more quickly and at a younger age and, second chronic, relapsing dependence. Among all respondents who developed alcoholism at some point, almost half-47%-met diagnostic criteria for alcoholism by the time they were 21 years old.

Scientists at the Boston University School of Public Health and Youth Alcohol Prevention Center carried out the analysis using data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), a representative survey of the US civilian noninstitutionalized population 8 years and older.

Additionally, the recently released 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Study—conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—found that, among high school students nationwide, 26% had drunk alcohol for the first time before they were 13 years old.

In results consistent with what had been observed in earlier studies, among people who began drinking before 14 years, 47% experienced dependence at some point—compared to 9% of those who began drinking at 21 years or older. In general, for each additional year before 21 years that a survey respondent began to drink, the odds increased that he (she) would develop a dependence on alcohol at some time during his life.

These new findings show that, among all drinkers, early drinking was associated not only with a higher risk of alcoholism at some point in general, but specifically within 10 years of first starting to drink, before 25 years of age, and during any given year of adult life. Early drinking was also associated with an increased risk of having multiple episodes of alcoholism. Furthermore, among respondents who had had alcohol dependence at some point, those who began drinking young had episodes of longer duration and with a wider range of symptoms than those who started later.

The study was reported in the July 2006 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.