Higher Risks in Early Drinkers
Over the years, countless studies have been conducted about alcohol and teenage drinking. It is often believed that drinking at an early age indicates that a person is somehow predisposed to risky behaviors, including alcoholism. But a recent study from the National Institute of Health may have discovered something different.
In its study, the NIH took into account such factors as family history of alcoholism, smoking, childhood antisocial behavior, and drug use. All of these factors are believed to increase the risk of alcohol use and dependence. After taking these factors into consideration, the NIH still found that those who began drinking at an early age were significantly more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol, and the dependence is more likely to be chronic and associated with long-term health issues.
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The study reported that 47% of people who began drinking before the age of 14 developed a dependence on alcohol. Compare that with the 9% of people who began drinking at age 21 or older. People who start drinking at a young age are more likely to develop alcoholism within 10 years of when they first started to drink. They are also at an increased risk during any year of adulthood.
Unfortunately, drinking is often the result of the natural adolescent tendency to take risks. Because of the way the brain develops, adolescence is a time for pushing boundaries, for exploration, and for risk taking. Most teens find healthy ways to take risks through extra-curricular school activities or by learning to skateboard, rollerblade, or something similar. Some adolescents, however, seek risks through drugs and alcohol. Many people would be, and are, tempted to simply prevent their adolescents from taking any kinds risks. But because it's a natural part of their developmental process, preventing risk-taking could actually be detrimental. Consequently, it's important to provide young people with healthy ways to take risks.
Just as compelling as the NIH study is the mounting evidence that significant structural and functional brain development occurs during the adolescent years. How alcohol may affect these developments is not fully known. There is an increasing amount of information which proves that alcohol affects an adolescent brain very differently than it does an adult brain. There's a strong possibility that an adolescent brain is more susceptible to damage from repeated alcohol exposure.
During adolescence, the brain is still being molded. Synapses that have been forming at lightning speed are now being "pruned"; strong connections are being strengthened, and weak connections are being eliminated. Much of this process is influenced by an adolescent's interactions with the outside world. So it stands to reason that negative outside influences, such as the pressure to drink or do drugs, could have a negative affect on the brain's developmental process. Along those same lines, the alcohol itself could have a negative affect.
The results of all of these studies are significant. They offer verifiable proof that early onset of alcoholism can be prevented by effectively reaching young people with messages that persuade them not to drink. Where before it was believed that those who began drinking early were somehow predisposed to alcoholism, we now know that isn't entirely true. Rather than being an indication of predisposition, the drinking may, itself, create the predisposition to alcohol dependence.