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Why early drinking leads to later abuse

February 05, 2007|David Brown | Washington Post

People who start drinking alcohol at a young age are more likely to drink a lot when they get older, and to get into trouble with it. That's been known for a while and is not a surprise.

A new study, however, sheds light on one reason that early drinkers often become heavy -- or dependent -- older drinkers.

It's because they are more likely to use alcohol as a "stress reducer" than do people who began drinking at an older age. Alcohol, it seems, becomes an overused tool for weathering the trials of adulthood if a person first uses it as a young teenager.

Deborah A. Dawson, of the federal government's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, analyzed the responses of nearly 27,000 people in a nationally representative survey of Americans and their drinking habits.

The respondents, average age 43, were asked when they started drinking, how much they drank now and whether they had experienced any of 12 stressful events in the previous year, including the death of a family member, financial crises and marital disruption.

Regardless of when people started drinking, alcohol use increased with the number of stressful events a person experienced. People who started drinking at 14 or younger and reported six or more "stressors" in the previous year consumed an average of six drinks a day -- five times the amount of similarly stressed people who started drinking at 18 or older.

The early drinkers increased their alcohol intake 19% with each additional stressful event, compared with only 3% by the later-starting drinkers.

The trend of youthful drinkers growing into adults who rely on alcohol to cope was evident even when the scientists considered only events that heavy drinking was not likely to have caused -- such as the death or illness of a family member or a change in work hours.

The study is published in the January issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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