Early Drinking May Speed Alcohol Dependence
By Anne Harding
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – People who begin to drink alcohol before the age of 14 years are not only more likely to become alcoholics than those who stay away from alcohol until they’re 21; they also develop dependence on alcohol faster, and face a longer struggle with alcohol throughout their lives, a new study shows.
"It’s not to say that people don’t get over this, but…they’re at greater lifelong risk, particularly if they develop dependence so rapidly that they have it this early in life," the study’s lead author, Dr. Ralph W. Hingson of Boston University School of Public Health’s Youth Alcohol Prevention Center, told Reuters Health.
There is mounting evidence that people who start drinking early are more likely to become alcohol dependent, Hingson and his team note in the July issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. To investigate whether they may also become alcohol dependent at a younger age, the researchers analyzed the results of a 2001-2002 survey of 43,093 adults conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The researchers found that 47 percent of people who had started drinking before age 14 met criteria for alcohol dependence within 10 years, compared to 4 percent of those who started drinking at age 21. Twenty-seven percent of the men and women who started drinking before age 14 were alcohol dependent before the age of 25, compared with 4 percent of those who began drinking at 21.
Using statistical techniques, the researchers factored in the influence of multiple factors that could be related to early drinking and the development of alcohol dependence, such as antisocial behavior during childhood, a family history of alcoholism, depression and education level.
Even after controlling for such factors, people who started drinking early were 2.6 times more likely to have episodes of alcohol dependence lasting longer than year and nearly three times as likely to have 6 to 7 symptoms of alcohol dependence versus 3 to 5 symptoms.
The findings underscore the dangers of early alcohol use, Hingson and his team note, and raise the possibility that efforts to help prevent drinking among teens, such as raising the drinking age to 21, could reduce the rates of alcohol dependence.
"We think it’s very important that adolescents routinely be asked about their drinking practices by their health care providers," Hingson told Reuters Health. "There are interventions that we know can make a difference."
SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, July 2006.