Aug. 16, 2001 MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL -- Although adolescents who take their first drink before age 15 tend to run a high risk of developing alcoholism, research at the University of Minnesota suggests that early drinking is likely not the cause, but rather a symptom of an underlying predisposition to alcoholism and other behavioral problems. Further, an early age of first drink (AFD) runs in families, and early AFD appears to be heritable in males. The work will be published in two papers in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
"We found that early AFD is associated not simply with alcoholism, but with a wide range of behavioral outcomes that are indicative of a reluctance or inability to control one's behavior," said University of Minnesota psychology professor Matt McGue, who is first author on both papers. His colleagues were several University of Minnesota researchers.
Besides alcoholism, behaviors associated with early AFD include drug abuse, delinquency, antisocial behavior in adulthood and decreased educational attainment, McGue said. Early AFD adolescents also showed a reduced amplitude of the P3 brain wave, a standard psychophysiological marker of alcoholism risk. Depression, however, was not associated with early AFD.
"Alcohol researchers had hoped that by delaying the age at which an adolescent first tried alcohol one could lower the rate of alcoholism," said McGue. "But early AFD is associated with a broader range of behavioral problems, some of which precede drinking. It suggests early AFD is a symptom of something more basic." That said, McGue emphasized that delaying the age of drinking is important by itself because it can prevent car accidents, sexual victimization and other undesirable behaviors.
In the second paper, McGue and his colleagues used data from the Minnesota Twin Family Study. They found that adolescents with at least one parent who experienced an early AFD are more likely to experience early AFD themselves. Such adolescents were more likely to become early drinkers, and boys, especially, were more likely to exhibit conduct disorder and a pattern of rebelliousness. Of those boys whose parents both had an early AFD, 60 percent had one or both of these conditions. But if neither parent had an early AFD, only 13 percent of sons had one or both of these conditions.
McGue said that prevention efforts focused only on early drinking are unlikely to prevent alcoholism or other problems later in life. Instead, efforts on behalf of early drinkers should take into account that they may be part of a larger subset of youth at risk for multiple behavioral problems.
The studies were funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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