TUESDAY, Sept. 23, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Both drinking and getting drunk at an early age are key risk factors for alcohol abuse by high school students, a new study suggests.
The conclusions, based on a survey of high school students who drink, could help expand alcohol-prevention efforts aimed at teens to include those who already drink, to stop them from becoming binge drinkers, the researchers suggested.
"Efforts to distinguish between age of first alcohol use and progression to first heavy use as risk factors for heavy drinking have important implications for prevention efforts," William Corbin, director of clinical training in the psychology department at Arizona State University, said in a news release.
"If age of any use is the primary risk factor, our efforts should be primarily focused on preventing initiation of any use," Corbin said. "If, however, age of first intoxication -- or delay from first use to first intoxication -- is a unique risk factor above and beyond age of first use, prevention efforts should also target those who have already begun drinking in an effort to prevent the transition to heavy drinking."
For the study, published online in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the researchers examined the risk associated with the age that high school students started drinking as well as the time that elapsed between their first drink and the first time they got drunk.
The study involved 295 high school students, 163 females and 132 males. Most of the students were white and their average age was 16.
The participants were asked to complete an anonymous survey about their alcohol use in February 2010. Specifically, they were questioned about when they first tried alcohol, and when they got drunk for the first time. They were also asked how often they drank alcohol in the past month and how often they engaged in binge drinking (described as having more than five drinks).
The study revealed that starting to drink at an early age coupled with quickly progressing to heavy drinking was associated with alcohol abuse among high school students. However, the researchers did not prove a cause-and-effect link.
"Our research suggests that teenagers who have their first drink at an early age drink more heavily, on average, than those who start drinking later on. Our work also suggests that how quickly teenagers move from having their first drink to getting drunk for the first time is an important piece of the puzzle," study corresponding author Meghan Morean, an assistant psychology professor at Oberlin College in Ohio and an adjunct assistant psychiatry professor at Yale School of Medicine, said in the news release.
Based on their findings, the researchers suggested that a teenager who first drank alcohol at age 14 and then got drunk for the first time at age 15 would be a heavier drinker than a teen who started drinking at 14 but didn't get drunk until the age of 18.
"The current study also demonstrates that the effects of age of first use and delay to first intoxication do not differ by year in school, gender or ethnicity. Thus, these appear to be relatively universal risk factors rather than unique risk factors for specific subgroups of the population," Corbin added.
Although larger studies are needed to compare the age when teens begin to drink and when they first get drunk, the researchers said parents should get involved and take steps to prevent alcohol use by their children.
"We would recommend that parents attempt to delay their children's use of alcohol as long as possible," said Morean. "However, even among adolescents who have had their first drink, a significant percentage has yet to drink to intoxication. Therefore, parents' efforts to delay drinking to intoxication may be helpful in reducing their child's long-term risk for negative outcomes associated with early drinking. We encourage parents to speak to their children openly about the dangers of heavy drinking."
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more on underage drinking.