Study assesses variation in 'maturing out' of alcohol use in young adulthood

Rates of heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder peak in the late adolescent and early adult age-group (19-25 years), before decreasing from around age 26. This supports the notion that many young people 'mature out' of heavier drinking behavior. However, changes in young adults' alcohol consumption vary widely, and depend on a range of factors including role transitions (e.g. marriage, parenthood), social networks, and personality. Dr. Michael Windle from Emory University, Georgia, assessed the variation in 'maturing out' by evaluating trajectories of alcohol use from adolescence through young adulthood, up to around 33 years of age. The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, also explored whether different alcohol use trajectories were associated with other indicators of young-adult functioning, relating to health, sleep, and social and occupational functioning.

Data were analyzed from over one thousand young adults who had provided detailed information on recent alcohol use at various timepoints between the ages of around 15 to 33 years. At the final timepoint, participants gave additional information on other aspects of their lives and functioning. Using statistical modeling, participants were grouped into three different alcohol use trajectories. Most (around two thirds of the sample) fitted a 'normative use' trajectory, characterized by stable low alcohol use from adolescence to young adulthood. A smaller group (just under one third of the sample) was assigned to a 'moderate increase' trajectory, in which moderate drinking increased slowly from adolescence to emergent adulthood (age 23 years) before decreasing slightly to young adulthood. Around 6% of the sample fitted a 'high increase' trajectory, characterized by a high, increasing pattern of alcohol use from adolescence to emergent adulthood, followed by a small decrease to young adulthood.

At age 33, those in the high increase group showed poorer functioning than the normative use group across the assessed indicators – with greater alcohol and illicit drug use, more partner and work/family conflict, poorer physical health and sleep, and lower job-related motivation. The moderate increase group also scored worse than the normative use group for most of these measures.

The findings confirm that patterns of change towards maturing out of alcohol use are not uniform. Most young people maintained a pattern of low stable use and did not mature out, largely because they never had a high level of consumption. The moderate and high increase groups did show a pattern of modest decline with age, indicating that maturing out applies to a smaller subset of heavier and more frequent drinkers. Further, the data suggest that young adults with either a high or moderate increase trajectory for alcohol use warrant attention and intervention to reduce the risk of poor life outcomes.

Journal reference:

Windle, M. (2020) Maturing Out of Alcohol Use in Young Adulthood: Latent Class Growth Trajectories and Concurrent Young Adult Correlates. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.


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