Age of First Drink of Alcohol

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Age at first drink has repeatedly been associated with increased risk of later alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Alcohol activists have concluded that simply raising the age at first drink could reduce the risk of alcoholism.

But this conclusion is based on the highly questionable assumption that consuming alcohol at an early age causes subsequent problems. Ice cream consumption and drowning are highly correlated. As one goes up, the other goes up and as one goes down, the other goes down. Does eating ice cream cause drowning? No. Both are associated with warm weather.

Similarly, does drinking alcohol at an early age cause alcohol abuse or alcoholism? Possibly. But an alternative possibility is that people who are predisposed to be alcohol abusers or alcoholic will crave alcohol from an early age; they are "born" alcoholic.

Another alternative is that drinking at an early age and alcohol abuse are both related to some other factor(s). For example, both might be caused by a need to engage in risky behaviors or some other personality characteristic.

These alternative explanations were investigated three ways. First, the researchers studied age at first drink and substance use, mental health disorders, education, I.Q., education and personality in a sample of 2,670 adults. Second, they studied whether P3 amblitude (a well-documented psychophysiological marker of alcoholism risk) was associated with age oat first drink in a sample of 1,127 17-year-olds. Third, they studied whether indicators of disinhibitory psychopathology assessed at age 11 predicted age at first drink in a sample of 1,343 adolescents.

The researchers concluded that age at first drink is not causally associated with alcoholism but is associated with a wide range of indicators of disinhibited behavior and psychopathology. Individuals who first drank at an early age exhibited high rates of disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology before they first try alcohol.

So it would appear that, at best, attempts to raise the age of first drink would be ineffective in reducing alcohol abuse and alcoholism. In fact, attempts to raise age at first drink may very well be counter-productive.

 

Reference:

  • McGue, M. et al. Origins and consequences of age at first drink. I. Associations with substance-use disorders, disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology, and P3 amblitude. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2001, 8, 1156-1165.

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