Teen drinking predicts adult alcoholism

INDIANA U. (US) — Adolescents who suffer consequences from drinking are more likely to be diagnosed with alcoholism as adults.

The association is stronger for females than males, according to a new study that used the Rutgers Alcohol Problem Index (RAPI).

“The key finding was that the more drinking-related problems experienced by an adolescent at age 18, the greater the likelihood that adolescent would be diagnosed with alcoholism seven years later at age 25,” says Richard Rose, professor emeritus of psychology at Indiana University and the study’s senior author.

The study, available online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, involved 597 Finnish twins, 300 male and 297 female, who were assessed at ages 18 and 25.

“That predictive association was stronger in females than males. The analysis of co-twins ruled out factors such as parental drinking and household atmosphere as the source of the association, because twins jointly experience these.”

Rose assessed the twins at age 18 and seven years later interviewed them using the Semi-Structured Assessment of the Genetics of Alcoholism to determine any alcohol abuse and dependent diagnoses.

RAPI is widely used to assess adolescent drinking-related problems, but this is the first time its predictive powers have been examined on a longitudinal basis. The findings have important implications for clinicians, Rose says.

“The first step in intervention is to identify those at elevated risk. Screening for drinking-related problems in adolescence may reliably identify many of those at elevated risk for development of alcoholism, and a self-report instrument such as RAPI offers an efficient approach for such screening.”

Key findings of the study include:

  • RAPI is a self-report questionnaire on the frequency with which an adolescent has experienced 23 consequences of drinking alcohol, such as getting into a fight with a friend or family member, in the preceding 18 months.
  • More drinking-related problems experienced at age 18 are associated with a diagnosis of alcohol dependence at age 25.
  • There is a strong association between RAPI scores and later alcohol dependence, in females as well as in males, and in co-twins who differ in drinking but share their childhood environments and half or all of their segregating genes.
  • Some study participants with high RAPI scores did not become alcohol dependent and conversely some with low scores did, opening the door for further research.

Rather than reflecting a direct cause-and-effect relationship between adolescent drinking and adult alcoholism, the study findings indicate the possibility that individuals who transgress social norms in adolescence by drinking heavily may be those same individuals who transgress social norms in adulthood by drinking abusively.

“I would say for sure that heavy drinking in adolescence is a real danger sign, regardless of whatever the causal mechanisms are,” says Matt McGue, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota.

“Heavy drinking in adolescence is an indication that preventive intervention is warranted.”

Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University, Ankara University in Turkey, and the University of Helsinki contributed to the study, that was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
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