Taking your first drink in your early teens may put you at greater risk of developing alcohol problems later on, according to new research.
The study adds to work suggesting that early start to substance use may be particularly dangerous — not only because those who are at high risk of becoming dependent tend to start young for social reasons, but also because early use may affect brain development.
Researchers have long known that the age at which a person starts drinking or taking drugs is a good predictor of whether or not he or she will develop an addiction. A person who starts drinking between age 11 and 14, for example, has a 16% chance of becoming an alcoholic 10 years later, while the odds are just 1% for someone who starts at 19 or older, according to one large study.
And there are several reasons for this elevated risk. Children who start drinking at 12 may turn to alcohol to escape a chaotic, unstable family situation, or to cope with their own psychological stress or anxiety; such a strategy, however, may prevent them from learning other ways of coping. It’s also possible that the effects of alcohol on the brain during this period of development may make addiction more likely.
To find out, researchers led by Miriam Schneider of the University of Heidelberg in Germany studied 280 young adults who had taken part in a long term study of children at risk of many types of bad outcomes because of poverty and potential maltreatment. They wanted to learn how having a first full drink (not just a sip or ceremonial taste) during puberty, vs. other periods, affected the odds of alcohol problems.
The volunteers were assessed on many psychological measures every several years between age 3 months and age 23: most of them had experienced various types of childhood adversity such as poverty and domestic violence. Researchers controlled for the level of negative childhood experiences, parental addictions and early childhood behavior problems— all of which can independently influence risk of alcohol problems— when they looked at the effects of puberty on later drinking.
The researchers measured puberty in boys by documenting their levels of pubic hair and genital development on the Tanner scale, an established measure of sexual maturity that ranges from 1-5, with 5 representing full sexual maturity. Typically, American boys reach stage 5 by age 14 to 15 and girls usually have their first period around age 13.
The results, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, were stark. Both men and women who started drinking after puberty drank only about half as much as those who started when their hormones were surging. “Having the first drink during puberty was associated with elevated drinking levels and more hazardous alcohol consumption patterns,” the authors write.
Because girls reach puberty earlier than boys — but tend to start drinking around the same time — this could help explain why women are at lower risk of alcohol problems. Girls’ brains may be at a later stage of development when they start drinking.
Oddly, however, the study found that the very small group of children who had their first full drink before the hormonal chaos of puberty began had a lower risk of alcohol problems later in life. “[The data] revealed a peak risk of alcohol use disorders for those beginning at 12 to 14 years of age, while even earlier beginners seemed to have a slightly lower risk,” Schneider told Psych Central.
That suggests that something about the hormonal changes that occur during puberty may make substance use more problematic. During this period, the brain experiences more growth and change than at any other stage of life except infancy. It could be that this explosion of development puts young teens at especially high risk for addictions— even higher than if they started their exposure earlier when their brains were more quiescent. However, because the numbers of people who started drinking before puberty young in this study was so small, the results should still be considered preliminary.
The study might seem to suggest that the trend toward early puberty could decrease the risk of alcohol problems in current generations, since the brain may already be past its most vulnerable stage before alcohol exposure occurs in mid-adolescence. But other research suggests that may not be the case. That data shows that children who enter puberty ahead of their peers are actually at higher risk of addiction. However, it’s not clear whether this risk is due to social factors like being drawn to older teens who are also more physically mature or because of biological factors like stress that can trigger early puberty.
Both the current study and that body of evidence, however, does suggest that early exposure to alcohol may set adolescents up for problem drinking later on, and that delaying the first drink for as long as possible may help to foster more responsible alcohol habits.