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Early Drinking Linked to Increased Risk of Alcohol Abuse Later in Life

Data from a survey by the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse has increased concerns that early alcohol use may contribute to the risk of developing future alcohol problems.

The national survey involved more than 43,000 adult respondents. The participants who began drinking in their early teens were not only at greater risk of developing alcohol dependence at some point in their lives, they were also at greater risk of developing dependence more quickly (within ten years of first starting to drink) and at younger ages (before age 25), and of developing chronic, relapsing dependence. Among all respondents who developed alcoholism at some point, almost half (47%) met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence (alcoholism) by age 21.

In the study, investigators attempted to account for factors such as family history of alcoholism, childhood antisocial behavior and depression, and smoking and drug use known to be associated with higher risk. Even when controlling for a number of risk factors and the effects of age differences among respondents, early drinking was associated with an increased risk of lifetime alcohol diagnosis.

Elias Zerhouni, MD, director of the NIH, said, “This is a very good example of how insights gained from health research can inform public policy. Converging research suggests that youthful drinking is associated with an increased risk of long-term, not just acute, health consequences.”

Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health and Youth Alcohol Prevention Center carried out the analysis using results from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC).

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