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NIH Research Matters

July 7, 2006

Early Drinking Linked to Higher Lifetime Alcoholism Risk

Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, leading to more than 75,000 deaths each year. A new study shows that those who begin drinking earlier in life are at greater risk for developing a dependence on alcohol.

photo of alcoholic drinks

Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health Youth Alcohol Prevention Center carried out their analysis of 43,000 U.S. adults using data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), a survey involving face to face interviews with adults 18 and older. Their work was funded by NIH's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

The results appear in the July issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Echoing earlier reports, the study found that, of those who began drinking before age 14, 47% experienced dependence at some point, compared to 9% of those who began drinking after they turned 21. In general, the younger the age a person started to drink, the greater their likelihood of developing alcohol dependence. The younger they started drinking, the greater their risk of developing chronic relapsing dependence later in life, the longer those episodes of dependence and a wider their range of symptoms.

Previous research had already established a link between drinking at a young age and the chance of an alcoholism diagnosis sometime in life. This study took into account factors that are known to be associated with a higher risk of alcoholism, such as a family history of alcoholism, childhood antisocial behavior and depression, and smoking and drug use. Even taking such factors into account, early drinking was still associated with an increased risk of lifetime alcoholism diagnosis. These finding suggest that, rather than just being a sign of a young person predisposed to risky behavior, drinking at a young age, when the brain is still developing, may itself raise the risk of future alcohol problems.

A recent survey found that more than one out of every four high school students had drunk alcohol (other than a few sips) for the first time before age 13. The authors conclude that the results of these studies taken together support the need to take measures to delay alcohol consumption by underage youth.

Future research will try to clarify how early drinking relates to lifetime alcohol use. Dr. Ting-Kai Li, Director of NIAAA, said "It is important to learn whether early alcohol use may affect the developing brain in ways that increase vulnerability to dependence."

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Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Assistant Editors: Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

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This page last reviewed on December 3, 2012

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