Drinking at an early age (early onset of drinking) has been associated with later alcoholism and other drinking problems in several western countries that prohibit young people from drinking alcohol legally.
This has led some people to believe that delaying the age at which young people first drink might reduce the later incidence of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. That might work if drinking at an early age actually causes subsequent alcohol problems.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) accurately summarizes the research on the relationship between the onset of drinking at an early age and alcohol dependence later in life.
People who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some time in their lives compared with those who have their first drink at age 20 or older (25). It is not clear whether starting to drink at an early age actually causes alcoholism or whether it simply indicates an existing vulnerability to alcohol use disorders (26). For example, both early drinking and alcoholism have been linked to personality characteristics such as strong tendencies to act impulsively and to seek out new experiences and sensations (27). Some evidence indicates that genetic factors may contribute to the relationship between early drinking and subsequent alcoholism (28,29). 1 (Emphasis added)
The federal agency's warning against assuming that early drinking of alcohol causes later alcohol abuse is routinely ignored. For example, Joseph Califano of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) misleadingly asserts that "teen drinking is the number one source of adult alcoholism. Children who begin drinking before age 21 are more than twice as likely to develop alcohol-related problems. Those who begin drinking before age 15 are four times likelier to become alcoholics than those who do not drink before age 21." 2 Similarly, a Drug Abuse Resistance education (DARE) official erroneously asserts that "research tells us if we can keep the kids off cigarettes and alcohol, by the time they graduate there's almost zero percent chance they will abuse any other type of drug." 3
However, there is very strong and growing evidence that early drinking is not the cause, but only a result, of an underlying predisposition to alcoholism and other behavioral problems.
Both early onset of drinking and alcohol dependence may be caused by underlying personality characteristics such as impulsivity or sensation seeking, or from genetic factors.
Federally funded research continues to seriously question whether early age of first drink has any effect upon later alcohol dependence or alcohol-related problems. 4 In one such study, the researchers found that
"AFD (age at first drink) is not specifically associated with alcoholism but rather is correlated with a broad range of indicators of disinhibited behavior and psychopathology. Moreover, individuals who first drink at a relatively early age manifest elevated rates of disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology before they first try alcohol. Taken together, these findings suggest that the association of AFD with alcoholism reflects, at least in part, a common underlying vulnerability to disinhibitory behavior. Whether an early AFD directly influences risk of adult alcoholism remains unclear."
The investigators also report that "problems seen in adulthood among early drinkers existed prior to their taking that first drink, which suggests that developmental processes were already disrupted prior to that first drink. Thus, an early AFD is more likely a 'symptom' of an underlying vulnerability of disinhibitory processes rather than a 'cause' of increased rates of alcoholism." 5 Alcohol researcher Dr. Helene White explains that
age of onset may simply be a marker of an already existing syndrome of problem behaviors (Glantz & Leshner, 2000). Studies have consistently found that early disruptive behaviors (e.g., conduct disorder) are related to later substance use and abuse, and that the onset of disruptive behaviors often occurs prior to alcohol use initiation (e.g., Costello et al., 1999). McGue and colleagues (2001b) found that those who first started drinking before age 15 compared to those who started later were at much higher risk for developing alcohol dependence as well as other drug dependence and other externalizing disorders. They argued that all of these outcomes are manifestations of disinhibitory behavior or psychopathology, and that early onset of alcohol use may reflect a vulnerability to disinhibitory behavior. Furthermore, they found that several indicators of disinhibitory behavior actually preceded age of onset. Therefore, their findings refuted a causal path from age of onset to later alcoholism. In a subsequent study, McGue and colleagues (2001a) concluded that a common inherited vulnerability model appears to explain the association of early age of onset and later alcoholism. Prescott and Kendler (1999) also showed that the association between age of onset and later alcoholism was mediated by common genetic factors and, thus, they refuted any causal association. 6
In one study, trained interviewers rated children's ability to control their impulses and behavior (behavioral control) and to flexibly adapt their self-control to environmental demands (resiliency). This was done from the time children were between three and five years old and every three years thereafter until the children reached the age of 12 to 14.
The researchers found that low behavioral control and resiliency predicted the onset of alcohol and illicit drug use in adolescence. 7
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 disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology before they first try alcohol. 8
Researchers at the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands examined 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 1,400 twins.
Genetic factors were found to be the most important influence in the early initiation of alcohol consumption. 9
Research has found both problem gamblers and alcohol-dependent persons to display impairments in risky decision-making and cognitive impulsivity. More specifically, both share "deficits in tasks linked to ventral prefontal cortical dysfunction."
The findings are consistent with other research studies that have found that that pre-schoolers who display behavioral impulsivity are more likely to become problem drinkers later in life.
Early onset of drinking and later problem drinking both appear to be caused by impulsivity and similar personality factors that preceded them. 10
So it appears that, at best, attempts to raise the age of first drink would be ineffective in reducing alcohol abuse and alcoholism. In fact, attempts to raise age at first drink may very well be counter-productive.
Teaching young people how to drink in moderation may, in fact, reduce drinking problems. In some groups, including Jews, Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Spaniards, and many others, most people drink but there are few problems. There are three keys to their success.
Nation-wide research in both the U.S. (funded by the federal government) and England has demonstrated that teens who drink with their parents are less likely to experience alcohol-related problems. 12 Note that drinking with your own children at home (and sometimes elsewhere) is legal in most states. 13
But doesn't drinking at an early age damage the brain? Actually, there is no evidence that drinking in moderation at an early age causes any brain damage. 14 In fact, students in these early-drinking groups tend to out-perform U.S. students on standardized tests of math, geography, and other subjects.
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Filed Under: Underage Drinking Problems