Both men and women born between 1944 and 1963 began drinking at younger ages than those born between 1934 and 1943. But the drop in age at the time that drinking began was twice as large in women (3.2 years) as it was in men (1.6 years).
Grucza says there has been controversy in the field of alcohol research over whether starting to drink at a younger age actually increases risk of alcohol dependence or whether that younger age at first drink is a marker for other risk factors, such as family environment, impulsivity, or other genetic traits and/or environmental factors that can influence risk.
Although some past research has linked a genetic predisposition to alcohol dependence with early-age drinking, Grucza says genetic changes alone can't explain the increases in alcohol dependence among women in this study.
"Since genes don't change over such a short of a period of time, genetics can't be the whole story," he says. "There is a lot of discussion about whether the minimum drinking age should be lowered again. Our findings would suggest that from a public-health point of view, lowering the legal drinking age might lead to increased rates of alcohol dependence."
An interesting sidebar to the current study is that between 1970 and 1975, 29 states lowered the legal drinking age. Those laws were reversed 10 years later, but during the 1970s, when many of the women in these studies took their first drinks, it was legal to consume alcohol at age 18 rather than 21.
Legal drinking age, Grucza says, is one of many factors influencing when a person begins to drink, and in future studies he and his colleagues plan to look more closely at the effects of drinking-age laws on both when a person begins to drink and their subsequent risk for alcohol dependenc
|Contact: Jim Dryden|
Washington University in St. Louis