Genetics and Early Age of Drinking

The average age of first drinking alcohol around the world is 12 years and about 80% of young people begin drinking alcoholic beverages regularly at age 15 or younger according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Does beginning to drink at an early age (early onset of drinking) cause later alcohol-related problems such as alcoholism? Some have suggested that preventing young people from drinking at an early age would reduce subsequent alcohol-related problems.

Of course personality, genetics or other factors might lead to both early onset of drinking and later alcohol problems. If that is the case, then simply preventing teens and other persons under the age of 21 from drinking as long as possible would not be expected to reduce alcohol-related problems later in life.

To investigate this question, researchers at the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands examined the the role of both genes and environment on the initiation of drinking alcohol among early adolescents.They used data from the Netherlands Twin Registry to analyze almost almost 1,400 twins.

Genetic factors were found to be the most important influence in the early initiation of alcohol consumption.

This is consistent with other research on the subject. There is growing evidence that early drinking, in societies not permitting it, is not the cause, but only a consequence of an underlying predisposition to alcoholism and other behavioral problems.

For example, researchers have found that by carefully observing young children's behavior they could predict subsequent alcohol problems. They found that low behavioral control and resiliency among children three to five years of age predicted the onset of alcohol and illicit drug use in adolescence. This was before the children had consumed alcohol.

Similarly, in "Age at first drink and risk or alcoholism: a non causal association," researchers found that age at first drink is not causally associated with alcoholism but is associated with a wide range of indicators of disinhibited behavior and psychopathology. Individuals who first drank at an early age exhibited high rates of disinhibited behavior and psychopathology before they first tried alcohol.

Attempts to raise the age of first drink would appear, at best, to be ineffective in reducing alcohol abuse and alcoholism. In fact, they very well might be counter-productive.



  • Polen, E., Derks, E., Engels, R., van Leeuwe, J., Scholte, R., Wellemsen, G. and Bloomsma, D. The relative contribution of genes and environment to alcohol use in early adolescence: Are similar factors related to initiation of alcohol use and frequency of drinking? Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 2008, 32, 975-982.

Additional Reading:

  • Dawson, D.A. The link between family history and early onset alcoholism: Earlier initiation of drinking or more rapid development of dependence? Journal of Studies on Alcoholism 61(5): 637–646, 2000.
  • Grant, B.F., and Dawson, D.A. Age of onset of alcohol use and its association with DSM–IV alcohol abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse 9:103–110, 1997.
  • Kono, Y.; Yoneda, H.; Sakai, T.; et al. Association between early–onset alcoholism and the dopamine D2 receptor gene. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics) 74(2): 179–182, 1997.
  • McGue, M. et al. Origins and consequences of age at first drink. I. Associations with substance-use disorders, disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology, and P3 amblitude. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2001, 8, 1156-1165.
  • Prescott, Carol A., and Kendler, Kenneth S. Age at first drink and risk for alcoholism:
    A non causal association. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 1999,
    23(1), 101-107. (In spite of its title, this report examines alcohol problems in
    addition to alcoholism.)
  • Rose, R.J. A developmental behavior–genetic perspective on alcoholism risk. Alcohol Health & Research World 22(2): 131–143, 1998.
  • Virkkunen, M., and Linnoila, M. Serotonin in early–onset alcoholism. In: Galanter, M., ed. Recent Developments in Alcoholism. Vol 13: Alcohol and Violence. New York: Plenum Press, 1997. pp. 173–189.
  • Wong, P. M., et al. Behavioral control and resiliency in the onset of alcohol
    and illicit drug use: A prospective study from preschool to adolescence.
    Child Development, 2006, 77(4), 1016-1033.