Age at First Drink: A Measure of Impending Problems

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How young is too young to start drinking? Photo by [email protected]

Teens may see experimenting with alcohol as a rite of passage to adulthood, but research by Dr. Meghan Rabbitt Morean of Yale University demonstrates that the age at which the experimentation occurs may make a big difference in the life of a young person.

Teen Drinking and Longitudinal Research

Morean’s research examined 1160 college freshmen over a period of four years.  Longitudinal research, in which individuals are tracked over time, is a very powerful type of research because the change in behavior of particular individuals is evaluated, rather than simply comparing separate groups of people.

According to the author, previous research has investigated the influence of the student’s Age at First Drink (AFD) and the amounts of alcohol consumed, and identified problems such as compromised brain development and liver damage during adolescence, risky sexual behaviors, poor performance in school, and use of other substances like marijuana and cocaine.  

Dr. Morean contributed a key piece of the puzzle with this new research, by discovering that the speed with which a student moves from Point A. – his or her first drink, to point B. – drinking to intoxication, is an independent factor in developing drinking related problems.  Morean discovered that, “both an early AFD and a quick progression to drinking to intoxication can lead to heavy drinking and problems during the years from high school through to college.”

The research also uncovered additional factors, such as the fact that individuals with impulsive personalities and a family history of alcoholism were more likely to drink earlier and develop more alcohol-related problems.

Implications and Strategies for Delaying Age at First Drink (AFD)

Despite education campaigns, Morean notes that “the average American adolescent has his or  her first alcoholic drink between the ages of 14 and 15 years.” Rather than simply telling students to pass up alcohol, Morean believes that “prevention and intervention efforts targeting high school students be developed with the goal of delaying onset of heavy drinking among those at increased risk due to an early onset of drinking.”

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Morean stated that the community could play an important part in helping delay the age of first drink as well as drinking to intoxication. “[S]trict enforcement of laws against selling/serving alcohol to underage individuals, limiting events held by local bars and clubs that promote heavy alcohol consumption through offering inexpensive “specials” (e.g., all you can drink for $10 $1 draft nights), and enforcing alcohol-related policies on high school and college campuses may serve as deterrents to underage drinking.”

Drinking and Social Norms

Drink specials encourage intoxication (photo by Danielle Scott)

Drink specials enourage intoxication. Photo by Danielle Scott

Different cultures have different norms and laws regarding drinking. Morean posits that research on AFD and the progression of drinking to intoxication may help explain some of the different results seen in alcohol related problems in other cultures as well.  Since social norms vary, the age of the teen’s first drink, and the progression to intoxication may be different. Social norms that discourage early drinking, for example, and lengthen the time between that first drink and beginning to drink to ‘get drunk’ may help insulate young people from  a variety of poor outcomes.

Resources:

Morean, M., Corbin, W., Fromme, K. Age of First Use and Delay to First Intoxication in Relation to Trajectories of Heavy Drinking and Alcohol-Related Problems During Emerging Adulthood. (2012). Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.  Accessed August 15, 2012.

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