Early drinking to drunkenness by teens often leads to serious problem by college

Meghan Morean

Yale researcher Meghan Morean: A short time lag between the teen’s first drink and becoming drunk is a predictor of a serious drinking problem by senior year of college.

Teens who have their first drink at an early age and quickly progress to drinking to intoxication are likely to be heavy drinkers and have alcohol-related problems in college, a Yale researcher has found.

The link between the first drink and first intoxication seems to be a key indicator for problems with heavy drinking by the senior year of college. These problems range from having a hangover, getting into fights and missing class to risky sexual behavior, blackouts and drunken driving, said Meghan Morean, a post doctoral fellow at Yale’s School of Medicine.

“We found that people who started drinking early and had a short lag time before they were drunk were having problems by the end of college,” she said.

For example, a teenager who took his first drink at age 15 and also drank to intoxication at age 15 would be at greater risk for heavy drinking and problems than an adolescent who had his first drink at age 15 but did not drink to the point of getting drunk until age 17.

For the study, Morean and two colleagues tracked 1,160 students from the summer after they graduated from high school through their senior year at a large, southern university. The students took surveys every six months that tracked their drinking behavior and family history.

The researchers found that drinking typically starts at age 16 and there is a delay of 1.25 years before the teens drank to the point of intoxication. In other words, they usually start at age 16 and first get drunk halfway through age 17. There was plenty of variation, though, and some started drinking as young as age 9.

The study also found impulsive teens and those with a family history of drinking problems were more likely to drink earlier and have problems from heavy drinking. However, early intoxication did not seem to be a factor in these cases.

“We need to continue to work on prevention strategies to delay the onset of drinking for as long as possible,” Morean said. But even if children do start drinking early on, all is not lost.”

Warning teens who already drink about not drinking to intoxication could help mitigate the long-term health effects from heavy drinking, she said.

Morean said the takeaway is that it is important to speak to high school students openly about the impact of alcohol and give them the facts.