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Teens, Alcohol and Bad Attitude Don't Mix Well

Teen drinkers with negative attitudes at greater risk for health problems

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Teens who abuse alcohol are more likely to have health problems, and at least some problems are directly linked to what doctors call "negative emotionality," a new study says.

The opposite of positive thinking, negative emotionality can affect the way we see ourselves and our place in the world, oftentimes beginning at a very early age.

"In many cases I believe that negative emotionality is a long-standing personality trait with roots in childhood," says study author Dr. Duncan Clark, director of the Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center.

When alcohol abuse and, ultimately, alcohol dependence become part of the equation, Clark says negative feelings increase, allowing "negative emotionality and alcohol involvement to become intertwined." The result often is a series of health complaints, ranging from stomach aches to headaches to fatigue, that can be traced back to negative emotions, Clark says.

While it has long been known that teens who abuse alcohol also have a greater number of health problems, Clark says no one until now had documented the reason.

"The goal of our study was to examine the self-reported health problems, serum liver enzymes levels and physical-examination results of adolescents with alcohol-use disorders and to look at the relevance of negative emotionality and a propensity towards anxiety and depression to the health problems reported by this group," Clark says.

While he says he expected some health problems to be grounded in physical causes linked to alcohol abuse, Clark says he also suspected many health complaints reported by these kids had psychological causes.

"I believed [these complaints] were indicative of depression and anxiety and not caused by organ-damage-related diseases such as heart disease," says Clark.

Child psychiatrist Dr. Cynthia Pfeffer says Clark's theories are in line with what we already know about emotions and illness, and linking negative emotions to teen drinking and ultimately to illness isn't a surprise.

"How we feel about ourselves is directly linked to levels of anxiety and depression, which, in turn, are linked to many health problems, as well as many lifestyle problems, such as alcohol addiction," says Pfeffer, professor of psychiatry at the Weill Medical Center of Cornell University, Westchester (N.Y.) division.

Clark's study, published in the September issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, involved 71 teens with alcohol dependence and 57 with alcohol abuse problems. Approximately 60 percent of both groups were males. The teens were compared with a group of 131 boys and girls (pretty much evenly divided) who drank but did not abuse alcohol.

All the teens were asked to choose a list of symptoms they'd experienced from an inventory of 136 health complaints, including sleep, heart and lung, and neurological problems. Each teen also had a blood test to measure liver enzymes and a general physical exam. They also answered questions designed to determine their level of negative emotionality.

The result: Certain health problems or complaints, such as slightly elevated liver enzymes, were directly related to the effects of drinking. However, these complaints were few and far between.

By comparison, the overwhelming majority of self-reported complaints were tied to "negative emotionality" aggravated by the abuse of alcohol, Clark says.

"Adolescents with [alcohol-use disorders] were demonstrated to have more health problems than adolescents without [alcohol disorders]," says Clark.

Pfeffer says, "Teens who drink do have higher rates of depression and anxiety, and we are fairly certain that in most instances, the negative emotionality was present before the drinking started and is likely to have played at least some role in why these teens started to drink," she says.

What To Do:

To learn more about the signs of teen alcohol abuse, visit The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

To find out about the harmful health effects of alcohol on teens, click here.

To find more information about alcohol abuse, written expressly for teens, visit The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information.

SOURCES: Interviews with Duncan B. Clark, M.D., Ph.D., director, Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center; Cynthia Pfeffer, M.D., professor of psychiatry, Weill Cornell Center of Cornell University, Westchester division; September 2001 Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
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