Age at first drink: What does it really mean?

  • People who drink alcohol before the age of 15 tend to have a high risk of developing alcoholism.
  • Some prevention efforts have sought to decrease alcoholism risk by delaying age at first drink (AFD).
  • An early AFD may in fact be one of several behaviors that comprise 'behavioral undercontrol.'
  • Parents with an early AFD have children at increased risk for behavioral undercontrol.

Previous research has shown that individuals who have their first drink of alcohol before the age of 15 are substantially more likely to become alcoholic than those who have their first drink after the age of 20. This has led to the assumption that an early age at first drink (AFD) is a direct risk factor for alcoholism, and that delaying AFD will directly decrease the risk for later problems with alcohol. Two studies in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research question this assumption. Researchers found that an early AFD is not necessarily specific to alcoholism but is one of several behaviors that make up a more general, underlying problem of behavioral undercontrol.

"It has been thought that an early drink increased alcoholism rates by disrupting 'normal' developmental processes in adolescence," explained Matt McGue, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Minnesota, and lead author of both studies. "Our finding - that early use of alcohol is not specifically associated with increased rates of alcoholism, but is also predictive of increased rates of other drug abuse/dependence, mental health problems, and educational underachievement -- is not necessarily inconsistent with this hypothesis. However, our results indicate that problems seen in adulthood among early drinkers existed prior to their taking that first drink, which suggests that developmental processes were already disrupted prior to that first drink. Thus, an early AFD is more likely a 'symptom' of an underlying vulnerability o


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