Alcohol deterrence programs have sprung up in middle schools, high schools, and community centers around the country thanks to a flood of research showing that adolescent drinking causes all sorts of immediate problems, ranging from sleeplessness to reduced cognitive functioning to an increased likelihood of trying other drugs. Researchers at the University of Washington tracked a group of Seattle students, now in their 20s, to see whether adolescent drinking can have longer-term health consequences as well.
What the researchers wanted to know: Does teenage binge drinking result in worse health for young adults?
What they did: These researchers tracked a group of about 800 people in Seattle from 1985, when they were fifth graders, until 1999, when most of the subjects were 24 years old. They interviewed them each year from ages 13 to16 and then at 18, 21, and 24, asking about drinking, driving practices, drug use, sex behaviors, and health issues. Previous studies drawing on the same data identified four patterns of teenage drinking: nonbinge drinkers (including nondrinkers), who never or rarely drank more than five drinks in one occasion; chronic heavy drinkers, who drank throughout adolescence; escalators, who started drinking in midadolescence but increased their consumption quickly; and late onsetters, those who began drinking late in their teenage years. The current study compared the health of each of these groups at age 24.
What they found: Not surprisingly, the group that rarely or never engaged in drinking binges as teenagers were in the best health at age 24, as measured by weight, blood pressure, physical activity level, and number of times being sick. They were also the least likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as driving without a seat belt or under the influence of drugs. Chronic binge drinkers were in the worst shape; they were much more likely to be obese and have high blood pressure than the other groups. Both late onsetters and escalators were more likely to engage in risky behaviors at age 24 than those who did not go on drinking binges as teenagers. Late onsetters were more likely to get sick, but escalators, contrary to the author's expectations, did not show adverse health effects.
What it means to you: This is one of the first studies to connect early drinking to health problems later in life, and the risks remained even if people stopped drinking after their teenage years. The authors say alcohol prevention programs in schools should stress the negative, lifelong consequences of adolescent drinking.
Caveats: This study did not prove that drinking causes later health problems; it simply showed that people who drink as teenagers are more likely to have health-related problems as they enter young adulthood. However, the researchers controlled for many of the things that could also play a role in health, such as income level, gender, ethnicity, and level of drinking at age 24, and still found health effects for heavy teenage drinkers, indicating that alcohol probably plays a significant role.
Find out more: More information about the data used in this paper, from a study of Seattle schoolchildren, is available through the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington.
A page of statistics, risk factors, and other information about teenage drinking is available through the Department of Health and Human Services.
SADD, Students Against Destructive Decisions (formerly Students Against Drunk Driving) is an organization dedicated to helping teens deal with peer pressure to drink, take drugs, and engage in unsafe behaviors. Their website is www.saddonline.com.
Read the article: Oesterle, S., Hill, K.G., Hawkins, J.D., Guo, J., and R.F. Catalano. "Adolescent Heavy Episodic Drinking Trajectories and Health In Young Adulthood." Journal of Studies On Alcohol. March 2004, Vol. 65, No. 2, pp. 204212.