Why is the Drinking Age 21?

Alcohol overconsumption at an early age could lead to later problems

(RxWiki News) At what age a person first tastes alcohol may not be as telling as the first time a person gets drunk. Researchers found that the longer a young person delayed his or her first intoxication—the better their health fared.

A recent study asked 1,160 college students about their drinking practices. Results showed that the earlier a person first got drunk, the more likely he or she would experience later alcohol problems.

"Talk to your kids about responsible drinking."

Meghan Rabbitt Morean, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, led an investigation into outcomes of early onset alcohol consumption.

For the study, 1,160 incoming college freshmen were surveyed twice per year until the end of college.

Each of the students were asked questions about drinking. What age were they when started drinking? How old they were the first time they got drunk? How often they got drunk? And, did they have any alcohol related problems?

Results of the study found that one of the most significant predictors of later alcohol problems was the length of time between onset of drinking and first intoxication.

People who began drinking at an early age were not necessarily going to have later alcohol problems, but people who became drunk at an earlier age did show higher risk.

A total of 49 percent of the group had tried his or her first drink by the age of 16.

At the start of the surveys, 86 percent had tried drinking and 68 percent had been drunk before.

By the end of college the entire group admitted they had experience being drunk. 

From the start of the study to the end the percentage of students drinking heavily at least once a month went from 19 percent to 43 percent.

From the start of the study to the end the percentage of students experiencing above average negative consequences from heavy drinking went from 23 percent to only 28 percent.

The comparison of the last two sets of numbers may have suggested that the group of heavy drinkers experiencing negative consequences from drinking did not expand much over time.  

Those who began drinking heavily later in school may not have joined the group experiencing negative consequences from drinking.

Dr. Morean said, “Many studies have found relationships between an early age first drink and a range of negative alcohol-related outcomes later in life, including the development of alcohol use disorders, legal problems like DUI, and health problems like cirrhosis of the liver.”

“There is also evidence that beginning to drink at an early age is associated with more immediate 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.”

Researchers found that adolescents who had his or her first drink at age 15 did have a higher risk for heavy drinking and problems with alcohol than someone who had their first drink at the age of 17.

Study results showed that teens who both had their first drink and got drunk for the first time at age 15 were at a higher risk for heavy drinking and alcohol problems than teens who had his or her first drink at age 15, but didn't get drunk until the age of 17.

Authors recommended educating adolescents on the dangers of heavy drinking.

Suggesting that if it’s not possible to keep adolescents from starting to drink in early high school, perhaps efforts to teach them to avoid heavy drinking could prevent later alcohol problems. 

This study was published in Early View in August in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Funding for this study was provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, no conflicts of information were found.

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Review Date: 
August 20, 2012