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Early drinking leads to health, behavior problems later in life


Study finds drinking before age 15 increases risk for drug abuse, early pregnancy, criminal behavior and sexually transmitted diseases

Irvine, Calif., Alcohol education programs that focus on so-called “at-risk youth” are missing half their audience. A new study led by UC Irvine psychologist Candice Odgers shows that, like their at-risk peers, teens with no family history of substance abuse or behavioral problems are more likely to fail in school and develop addictions and sexually transmitted diseases if they experiment with alcohol before their 15th birthday.

Odgers also found that these same teens are more likely to commit crimes and get pregnant prior to age 21. The findings highlight the significant health and societal costs connected with teen drinking and add to growing evidence that early adolescence is a sensitive time for alcohol exposure.

“The early teen years are a critical period for development,” Odgers said. “Various cognitive and developmental changes are happening in the body and brain, and serious long-term consequences can result when alcohol or other substances also become a factor.”

The study, published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, looked at both high-risk and low-risk children who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs prior to age 15. In high-risk children, early drug use made an already-perilous situation worse. The study also found that half of young people who used alcohol or drugs before age 15 did not have childhood behavioral problems or family risk factors, and once these so-called “good kids” began using drugs and alcohol, they were three to four times more likely to develop addictions, STDs and criminal behavior than their non-using peers were.

“The study is consistent with the message that early substance use leads to health and behavioral problems down the road, versus the alternative message that young people with a history of problems are just more likely to use drugs early and suffer the consequences,” Odgers said. Results suggest that all children should receive alcohol and drug use prevention education and not just those already known to be at risk, Odgers added.

The project is part of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development study, a 30-year study of more than 1,000 people born in New Zealand between 1972 and 1973 and assessed regularly until age 32. When the children were 7-13 years of age, their parents and teachers reported behavioral problems, including fighting, bullying and telling lies. At 13 and 15 years, study members reported the frequency of their drug and alcohol use, with alcohol being the most commonly used substance. Researchers finally evaluated study participants at age 32 for addiction disorders, STDs, and criminal convictions.

Odgers was joined in the study by Avshalom Caspi and Terrie E. Moffitt of Duke University and Kings College, London; Nigel Dickson and Richie Poulton of the University of Otago; Daniel S. Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University; Alex R. Piquero of the University of Maryland, College Park; Wendy S. Slutske of the University of Missouri, Columbia; and Barry J. Milne of Kings College, London.

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