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Early drinking a strong predictor of alcoholism

You've probably heard parents who dismiss teenage experiments with alcohol as a
harmless phase. A newly published survey of 43,000 American adults reveals just the
opposite: Among those who started drinking before age 14, 47 percent became alcoholics at some point in their lives. When people waited until age 21 or later to start drinking, only 9 percent experienced the same result.

Researchers analyzed the survey data to factor out other risk factors for alcoholism--including family history, antisocial behavior in childhood, depression, smoking, and other drug use. Even so, the correlation between early drinking and alcohol problems in later life remained.

Other key findings were that:

The study was conducted at the Boston University School of Public Health and Youth Alcohol Prevention Center. Ralph Hingson, who directs the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, led the research team. Results appear in the July 2006 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

These findings are not isolated. Previous research has linked early drinking with alcohol problems in later life. One study, for example, revealed that people who began drinking before age 15 were five times more likely to report alcohol dependence or abuse than those who delayed drinking until age 21 or later.

There's also evidence that underage drinking is widespread. One section of the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health focused on people age 12 to 20 who consumed alcohol. Within this group, about 20 percent were binge drinkers (five or more drinks in one occasion at least once in the last 30 days). Nearly 6 percent were heavy drinkers (binge drinking at least five days a month). About 43 percent of full-time college students aged 18-22 were binge drinkers, while about 19 percent were heavy drinkers.

According to Hingson, the July 2006 publication strongly supports efforts to prevent underage drinking: "This analysis suggests that interventions that delay drinking onset may not only reduce the acute consequences of drinking among youth, but may help reduce alcohol dependence among adolescents and adults."

There's much that can be done, says Marty Harding, a prevention strategies manager at Hazelden, where a range of prevention programs are published.

"The single most important factor influencing whether kids choose to drink or not is whether their parents would be upset about it," Harding says. "That holds true from middle school to high school--even though it doesn't seem like your kids are listening to you. Set limits and standards and then just continue to give the message that you don't want your son or daughter using alcohol or other drugs."

Other key factors are encouraging schools to use evidence-based drug prevention programs with a track record of delaying alcohol use, reducing teenagers' access to alcohol in the community, and developing the leadership skills of kids who openly choose not to use.

"When you get all those things firing--the schools, the peers, the parents, and the community--then the data starts to show the age of drinking onset going up and the associated problems going down," Harding adds.

 
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