Early Puberty Predicts Early Alcohol Drinking and Intoxication

A study of 1,117 young people has found that early onset of puberty predicts consumption of alcohol and intoxication among both males and females. It also predicts smoking, drug use, and both sex and unprotected sex at an earlier age. Among boys, early puberty predicts fighting and other aggressive behaviors.

The findings are consistent with mounting evidence that early age of drinking does not cause later alcohol-related problems, but that both are caused by earlier-occurring events or characteristics.

The fact that early onset of drinking alcohol is often associated with later alcohol-related problems has led many people to confuse the correlation between the two with causality. They simply assume that early drinking causes later problems.

They incorrectly assume that if we keep young people from drinking until age 21 or older, they will be less likely to become alcohol dependent or suffer other alcohol-related problems later in life. 2

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has warned, based on research evidence, that early age of first drink may well not be the cause of subsequent alcohol problems. The NIAAA emphasizes that both early onset of drinking and later alcohol-related may be caused by underlying personality characteristics such as impulsivity or sensation seeking, or from genetic factors.

For example, sensation-seeking personalities may drink at an early age, engage in unprotected sex, gamble, drive recklessly, abuse alcohol, etc. Preventing them from engaging in any one of these behaviors would have absolutely no effect on any of the others. Similarly, preventing early drinking would have no effect whatsoever on a person's genetic makeup, which may be the cause of alcohol dependence or other problems.

Trained interviewers have 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.

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 exhibit high rates of disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology before they first try alcohol.

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 and found genetic factors to be the most important influence in the early initiation of alcohol consumption.


  • Downing, J., and Bellis, M.A. Early pubertal onset and its relationship with sexual risk taking, substance use and anti-social behaviour: a preliminary cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health, 2009, 9, 446.

Readings on Early Onset of Drinking Alcohol and Later Alcohol-Related Problems:

  • 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, 2000, 61(5), 637–646.
  • Dougherty, D. M., et al. Age at first drink relates to behavioral measures of impulsivity: The immediate and delayed memory tasks.
  • Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 2004, 28(3), 408-414.
  • 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, 1997, 9, 103–110.
  • Justus, Alicia N., et al. P300, disinhibited personality, and early-onset alcohol problems. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 2001, 25(10), 1457-1466.
  • Kono, Y., et al. Association between early–onset alcoholism and the dopamine D2 receptor gene. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics), 1997, 74(2), 179–182.
  • McGue, M., et al. Origins and consequences of age at first drink. II. Familial risk and heritability. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2001, 25, 1166-1173.
  • McGue, M., et al. Origins and consequences of age at first drink. I. Associations with substance-use disorders, disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology, and p3 amplitude. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2001, 25, 1156-1165.
  • Prescott, C.A., & Kendler, K.S. Age of first drink and risk for alcoholism: A noncausal association. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 1999, 23,101-107.

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