The younger someone starts drinking alcoholic beverages, the more likely he or she is to reach for a drink to relieve stress when older, a large new study suggests.
The steeper slope of "stress-reactive drinking among persons who started drinking at 14 or younger is of particular concern because their base levels of drinking are already higher than those of other drinkers," even when not experiencing stress, according to lead study author Deborah Dawson, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health.
The study, based on data collected in a 2001-2002 survey of nearly 27,000 past-year drinkers, appears in the January issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Respondents were asked whether they had experienced 12 different types of stressful events in the previous year, such as death of a family member or close friend, unemployment for more than a month, financial crises, legal problems or disruption of a marriage or romantic relationship.
Average daily consumption of alcohol increased by 19 percent with each additional stressful event experienced among those who started drinking at 14 or younger compared with 3 percent among those who took their first drink at 18 or older.
After adjusting for other factors that might be related to the amount of alcohol consumed, the researchers said "the association between stress and volume of consumption was significant only for early initiators."
The findings "provide one key to understanding why these early initiators are at greatly increased risk of developing alcohol use disorders," according to the authors, who say the results suggest that young teens "would benefit from prevention efforts that include stress-reduction techniques that could serve as an alternative to drinking."
But there is no simple way to prevent children and adolescents from drinking, said Jack Henningfield, Ph.D., vice president for research and health policy at Pinney Associates in Bethesda, Md.
"As we have learned from tobacco and other drug use prevention, it is a mistake to wait until the average age of onset use and problems," Henningfield said. "Prevention must start in the formative years of primary school or earlier."