Study: Do Early Drinkers Become Heavy Drinkers?

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Boasting about how young you were when you had your first full drink (sips at the dinner table from Mom or Dad’s wine glass don’t count) may be fun when you’re in college, but researchers say the age at which you have your first drink of alcohol may help predict what kind of drinker you may become as an adult.

Dorothea Blomeyer, a researcher at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, studied 306 men and women enrolled in the Mannheim Study of Children at Risk. This long-term survey tracked children from infancy into adulthood, and asked about alcohol use as well as how the participants reacted to stressful life events.

Blomeyer and her colleagues found that those who had their first full drink at younger ages were more likely to drink heavily in response to stressful events such as breaking up with a significant other, their parents’ divorce, or the death of a friend or family member.

The study isn’t the first to identify a linear relationship between age at first drink and later drinking habits, but because the participants were followed periodically over nearly two decades, the researchers were able to get more accurate recall of when the subjects had their first full alcoholic beverage. (More on TIME.com: Is Teen Binge Drinking Really a Harbinger of Alcoholism?)

Why could early drinking set youngsters up for heavier alcohol use later in life? There are several explanations, Blomeyer says. First, she noticed that the heaviest drinking adults reported having their first drink around puberty, at age 12 or 13. The hormonal changes and stress associated with that stage of development could mean that the rewarding sensations associated with alcohol become particularly salient and embedded in adolescents’ minds, which could motivate them to turn to alcohol in times of stress later. “There are findings that suggest drinking or taking any drugs under stressful situations is particularly rewarding,” she says. “As if there is a predisposition to enjoy it a little more.”

Alternatively, it might also be possible that children who have their first drink early start to rely on alcohol as a coping mechanism, learning that it can help to alleviate their stress or discomfort in social situations. This theory seems to be supported by other evidence suggesting that adults who never drank during stressful times when they were younger tend not to rely on alcohol later when faced with emotionally or financially difficult situations. (More on TIME.com: Should Parents Let Kids Drink at Home? New Data Show Many Do)

The findings don’t necessarily contradict the idea that exposing young children to alcohol earlier may make drinking less taboo and, therefore, less desirable, and help kids modulate their drinking as adults. But Blomeyer’s study looked specifically at the age at first full drink, while health experts believe that gradually exposing children to alcohol in the form of small sips of wine or beer may help them to control their urge to drink as adults.

More on TIME.com:

Should You Drink with Your Kids?

How to Tell If Your Drinking Is Really a Problem

4 Reasons Binge Drinking Is a Public Health Problem

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