The Link Between Early Drinking Age and Risk of Alcoholism

The Link Between Early Drinking Age and Risk of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol. It is a progressive illness characterized by an individual’s seeming inability to control their intake of alcohol.

The American Medical Association (AMA) recognized alcoholism as a disease as far back as 1956. This was based on the belief that alcohol addiction is due to a disease affecting the brain’s function and composition.

It often progresses from social use to dependence to full-blown addiction. As the addiction takes hold, there’s an increased tolerance to alcohol.

This means the person addicted to it needs to drink increasingly more alcohol for the same results that they crave. That is they are seeking to change the way they feel and usually to block out a great deal of, if not all, consciousness.

Drinking alcohol releases serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These are chemical substances that help us feel happy and can calm us. They give us a high. When that high starts to wane, someone who doesn’t like the way they normally feel will seek to get back to the high – so the craving for alcohol starts again.

How many people are alcoholics?

WHO (the World Health Organization) estimated in 2016 that there were 380 million people suffering from alcoholism worldwide. That’s more than five percent of the population aged 15 and over.

In 2021, around 16.6 percent of Canadians were considered heavy alcohol drinkers. In Canada, it is estimated that 4.2 percent – more than one million people – are addicted to alcohol or suffer from serious problems related to alcohol abuse.

Around 660,000 Canadian children aged under 18 live in households with at least one alcoholic parent. More than 50 percent of Canada’s senior elementary and high school students drink alcohol.

These figures are even more shocking considering the current minimum legal drinking age in most Canadian provinces and territories is 19, except Manitoba, Alberta, and Quebec, where it is 18.

Studies have revealed that those who start drinking at an early age have an increased risk of developing alcoholism. This most often causes numerous physical, emotional, mental, and social problems throughout life.

Is there a connection between early drinking age and alcoholism?

early drinking age and alcoholism

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) researchers looked at data from a three-year study of more than 22,000 drinkers who at the time were aged 18 or older. Their key finding was that young people who started drinking before they were 15 were 50 percent more likely to become dependent on alcohol when they became adults. It found a similar but not quite as stark pattern among those who first drank between ages 15 and 17. 

A study published in the scientific journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, that covers research concerning alcohol abuse and treatment, also found a strong link between drinking at an early age and alcoholism.

It reported that people who begin drinking before age 15 were four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some point in their lives compared with those who had their first drink aged 20 or older.

It went on to say that evidence indicates genetic elements could contribute to the relationship between early drinking and alcoholism. As well, environmental factors may have an impact. This is particularly in alcoholic families, where children might start drinking earlier due to family acceptance of drinking, lack of parental care or observation, and easier access to alcohol in the home.

Yet another study, published in the peer-reviewed publication Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, revealed that the age at which a person first drinks alcohol is a strong indicator of how they will drink in the future.

Those who started their drinking at an earlier age were much more likely to start to drink in damaging ways, such as binge drinking or drinking to blackout.

Peer pressure and early drinking age

One reason why early drinking age might increase the risk of becoming an alcoholic is that the brain is still developing. It is thought that consuming alcohol during this period can negatively affect brain development.

Specifically, it could be that it alters the brain’s reward system. Consequently, this increases the chance of developing an addiction to alcohol (and/or a drug addiction).

Peer pressure is likely to be an important factor in drinking at an early age. Such pressure can be particularly powerful if a young person does not have healthy parental love and care.

The studies mentioned above suggest a clear link between early drinking age and an increased probability of alcoholism. Delaying the age of having the first alcoholic drink could clearly then be a positive way of reducing such a risk.

What are the negative consequences of alcoholism?

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It is well known now that excessive alcohol consumption has several negative consequences on our health. In a society, it also causes many social, relationship, and economic problems.

Mentally and emotionally, it has been seen that people who regularly drink too much alcohol are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. In fact, the longer that a person drinks addictively, the more the chance of suicide increases.

Alcohol use is a major contributing factor for 18 percent of suicides. More than half of suicides are connected with alcohol or drug dependence, possibly because alcohol and other drugs damage brain chemistry and lead to isolation and loneliness.

Suicide is also regularly seen in young alcohol abusers. A quarter of suicides in adolescents are linked to abuse of alcohol.

In one study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Research on Adolescence, 37 percent of eighth-grade females who drank heavily reported attempting suicide. This was in comparison with 11 percent who did not drink.

Even if for most it will not reach this point, it is going to mean there is likely to be a poor performance in education. Finding and keeping a job will be more of a problem due to drinking.

For those young people who are working, it’s likely to mean more days off and an impaired performance when at work. This could lead to them eventually getting fired.

If it’s a job involving things such as driving, using machinery, or any level of concentration and responsibility, being regularly drunk – perhaps on the job – and/or hungover is obviously more likely to lead to mistakes. This could mean potential injury to themselves or others.

Alcohol use also puts a heavy burden on the health system in Canada. For instance, between 2014 and 2015, there were 77,000 admissions to hospital that were solely due to alcohol. This was more than the number of admissions for coronary artery disease.

Alcoholism and physical problems

On a physical level, drinking too much too often can lead to pancreatitis, liver damage, high blood pressure, and heart problems. There is also increased risk of having a stroke, digestive problems, as well as cancer of the throat, esophagus, mouth, liver, breast, rectum, and colon.

There will be a general weakening of the immune system, meaning there is increased chance of getting sick. Because the immune system is weakened, it means any illness can be more severe and take longer to recover from, perhaps meaning a hospital stay.

The most common cause of death in alcoholics is due to cardiovascular complications. A study of nearly 700,000 deaths per year between 2015 and 2019 indicated that excessive alcohol use was behind nearly 13 percent of deaths among people aged 20 to 64 years. That increased to around 20 percent of deaths among those aged 20 to 49 years.

In Canada, alcohol is behind eight percent of all deaths of people under 70 years of age. Considering this tragic figure, and the facts about the problems excessive alcohol use causes, makes it even more important to avoid drinking alcohol at an early age.

Thankfully, if you or someone you care about has a problem with alcohol, there is always a positive solution. There are treatments that are proven to be effective at helping anyone who’s struggling with alcohol.

Contacting Centres for Health and Healing

If you’d like more information about this article or are struggling with addiction, the Centres for Health and Healing team can help.

Our highly experienced, passionate team specializes in treating people with various substance addictions, including alcohol – and concurrent mental health disorders.

Call us today to hear how we can help and take that all-important first step on your healing journey.

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