It just may be that it doesn’t matter which came first, the chicken or the egg. At least when it comes to the issue of later development of alcohol-related problems.
It now appears that age at first drink (AFD) and rapid progression from first drink to intoxication are both major – and independent – risk factors for the development of alcohol-related problems among college undergraduates.
“Many studies have found relationships between an early AFD and a range of negative alcohol-related outcomes in life, including the development of alcohol use disorders, legal problems like DUI, and health problems like cirrhosis of the liver,” noted Meghan Rabbitt Morean, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine.
“There is also evidence that beginning to drink at an early age is associated with more immediate problems, such as compromised brain development and liver damage during adolescence, risky sexual behaviors, poor performance in school, and use of other substances like marijuana and cocaine,” said Morean, a corresponding author of the study which will be reported in the November 2012 issue of Alcohol: Clinical & Experimental Research and is now available at Early View.
Morean and her colleagues studied 766 incoming freshman females and 194 males, using data obtained from bi-annual assessment from the summer after senior year of high school through the fall of their fourth year of college – four years. Participants self-reported their age of drinking onset and age of first self-defined intoxication, as well as frequency of heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems.
When the researchers looked at the effects of AFD and the time from first use to first intoxication as predictors of heavy drinking and problems across the four years, they found “… beginning to use alcohol at an earlier age was associated with heavier drinking and the experience of more negative consequences during senior year of college,” reported Morean. “Quickly progressing from first alcohol use to drinking to intoxication was also an important predictor of heavy drinking and the experience of alcohol related problems during senior year of college.
“It is important to speak to children and adolescents openly about the dangers of heavy drinking and provide them with correct information, for example, ‘how many drinks does an average male/female need to drink to exceed the legal level for intoxication?” said Morean. “It is also extremely important to remember that heavy drinking during adolescence and early adulthood is not confined to college campuses. Most adolescents begin drinking during high school, a significant portion of whom begin drinking heavily. To help address this, we suggest that new alcohol prevention and intervention efforts targeting high school students be developed with the goal of delaying onset of heavy drinking among those at increased risk due to an early onset of drinking.”
Francis J. (Skip) Flynn, Psy. D.