Taking a first alcoholic drink at a younger age means a greater likelihood of problem drinking later in life, according to researchers.
The likelihood of alcohol abuse or dependence later in life increased by 12 percent for every year of decrease in the age of first drink, says lead researcher James L. York, Ph.D., of the State University of New York at Buffalo.
The study appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Early drinking age correlated more closely with the existence of drinking problems throughout a person’s life than with alcohol abuse recorded in the 12 months prior to the survey, York says. One year’s observation may not be enough to record the presence of drinking pathology, especially in younger drinkers, he explains.
York’s research on early drinking was based on interviews with of 2,276 adults age 18 to 91, part of a larger national survey. These were all “lifetime drinkers,” people who had consumed alcohol at any point in their lives. They were asked about their current drinking habits and also about when they had their first real alcoholic drink.
Early drinking was tied to gender, as well. “Men and lifetime pathological drinkers reported an earlier age at first drink than women or non-pathological drinkers,” York says.
Among lifetime drinkers, women reported taking their first drink when they were 18 years old, on average, while men began drinking at an average age of 16. Older respondents generally recalled starting to drink at a later age than younger people in the survey, York says.
About 2.8 percent of all the people interviewed met standards for alcohol abuse or dependence, he says, but the rate was higher for men (4.4 percent) than for women (1.6 percent). During their lifetimes, 29 percent of the men and 16 percent of the women had gone through periods of alcohol abuse or dependence.
The study’s design did not allow the researchers to conclude that early drinking caused the later problems with alcohol. The correlation may be explained by some third, unknown factor that influences both the onset of drinking and the development of alcohol abuse or dependence.
Rather than solely trying to delay that first drink, York says, identifying people who start drinking at an early age could permit interventions designed to prevent or minimize alcohol-related problems.
York’s research was funded in part by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Other researchers writing in the same issue of the journal report that alcohol consumption by middle and high school students has decreased substantially since the 1970s but still remains “unacceptably high.”
About 12 percent of eighth-graders and 29 percent of 12th-graders reported drinking five or more drinks in a row in the previous two weeks, according to a compilation of three other national studies, says Vivian B. Faden, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.