WASHINGTON, D.C. - The younger the age of drinking onset, the greater the chance that an individual at some point in life will develop a clinically defined alcohol disorder, according to a new report released today by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Young people who began drinking before age 15 were four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence (alcohol addiction, commonly known as alcoholism) than those who began drinking at age 21, researchers found. The risk that a person would develop alcohol abuse (a maladaptive drinking pattern that repeatedly causes life problems) was more than doubled for persons who began drinking before age 15 compared with those who began drinking at age 21.
The analysis by Bridget F. Grant, Ph.D., Ph.D., and Deborah A. Dawson, Ph.D., of NIAAA's Division of Biometry and Epidemiology, is published in the January issue of the Journal of Substance Abuse and based on the NIAAA-sponsored National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES), a national probability sample of nearly 43,000 interviews with field work conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1992. NLAES is the survey from which NIAAA in 1995 reported the most recent national estimates of alcohol abuse and dependence.
"This study adds new evidence about the need to regard underage drinking as the serious problem it is," said HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala. "Parents, schools, and communities need to say to our young people with one voice that underage drinking can jeopardize health and lifetime prospects."
"This first comprehensive analysis of the relationship between the age of drinking onset and the prevalence of lifetime alcohol abuse and dependence is one piece of a complex puzzle," said NIAAA director Enoch Gordis, M.D. "It remains to be seen whether it is the delay in alcohol use or, possibly, other associated factors that explain the inverse relationship between age at drinking onset and lifetime risk for alcohol abuse and alcoholism."
More than 40 percent of respondents who began drinking before age 15 were classified with alcohol dependence at some time in their lives, the researchers found. That compares to 24.5 percent for respondents who began drinking at age 17 and approximately 10 percent for respondents who began drinking at the ages of 21 and 22. The analysis revealed an increase in risk for subsequent alcohol dependence among persons who began drinking at ages 23 and 24 that declined again for persons 25 and older. Overall, the risk for alcohol dependence decreased by 14 percent with each increasing year of age of drinking onset.
Similarly, the prevalence of alcohol abuse declined as the drinking age rose. Of those who began drinking at age 14, 13.8 percent subsequently were classified with alcohol abuse, compared with 2.5 percent of those who began drinking at age 25 and older. Overall, the risk for lifetime alcohol abuse decreased by 8 percent with each increasing year of age of drinking onset.
"The most significant contribution of this study is the focus it provides for future research on the interaction of personal and environmental factors in the development of alcohol abuse and alcoholism," said Gordis. "Fortunately, this report comes at a time when NIAAA has stringently tested and proved effective several preventive interventions that can be applied in schools and communities."
To arrange author interviews and for additional information, telephone NIAAA's Scientific Communications Branch (301/443-3860). For related information on alcohol disorders, drinking by youth and other population subgroups, and other areas of NIAAA research, visit http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/.