Is Teen Binge-Drinking Really a Harbinger of Alcoholism?

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Is teen binge-drinking “just a phase?” Or do most teens who drink heavily become alcoholics?

If the conclusions of a new study of nearly 600 Finnish twins are to be believed, heavy drinking in youth leads to long-lasting problems. Researchers found that the more alcohol-related problems teens had by age 18, the more likely they were to be diagnosed with alcoholism at age 25. But that may not be the whole story. (More on 4 Reasons Binge Drinking Is a Public Health Problem)

The study, which was published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, is getting widespread media attention. The researchers say that because the teens in the study shared the same environmental, parental and genetic factors, these influences can be ruled out as an explanation of the association — suggesting that alcohol problems at 18 “robustly predict alcohol diagnoses” at 25.

But here’s where the study’s interpretation becomes troublesome: scientists found that 46% of the participants met the diagnostic criteria for full-blown alcoholism by age 25.

Can you spot the problem? Is it possible that nearly half of Finnish twins are alcoholics at 25? I suppose those long winters can get pretty cold and dull and could drive a young person to drink. Or maybe being a twin in Finland is somehow genetically associated with an insanely high risk of boozing. (More on Should Parents Let Kids Drink at Home? New Data Show Many Do)

In America, by contrast, among people aged 18 to 25, a total of 16% meet the criteria for either full-blown alcohol dependence or the less severe diagnosis of alcohol abuse. Among adults aged 26 or older, 6% qualify for either of those diagnoses, according to the latest figures from the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health.

These statistics alone suggest that drinking in youth is “just a phase” for many. Another explanation for the age-related drop in alcoholism rates could be that the majority of 18-to-25-year-old problem drinkers enroll in alcohol treatment programs or self-help groups — but that’s not possible simply because there aren’t enough recovery programs or therapists in the country to treat that many people.

The Finnish study does show that the more alcohol-related problems someone has at 18, the more likely they are to have serious problems at 25. That’s been found in many other studies as well. But the high level of alcoholism found in this sample makes it unrealistic to claim that most teen binge-drinkers are destined for Skid Row.

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