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Sensitivity to Alcohol May Predict Alcoholism

Young adults who can drink others 'under the table' face highest risk, study finds

TUESDAY, May 26 (HealthDay News) -- The more you need to drink to feel the effects of alcohol, the greater your chance of becoming an alcoholic, a new study says.

This apparent lack of sensitivity to imbibing intoxicants, called a low level of response (LR) to alcohol, can lead a person to drink more heavily to get that buzz or other desired effect. The condition appears to be genetic and independent of other influences on alcohol usage, such as the age a person started drinking, family history of alcohol abuse, and body mass index, according to the researchers.

The long-term study of nearly 300 men gauged their reaction to alcohol between ages 18 and 25, then again 10 years later and in five-year intervals afterward. Having a low level of response to alcohol at the start accurately predicted drinking disorders in the men's future, regardless of other factors.

"A low LR at age 20 was not just a reflection of being a heavier drinker at age 20 when we tested these men, and it wasn't an artifact of an earlier onset of drinking," the study's corresponding author, Marc A. Schuckit, director of the Alcohol Research Center for the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, said in a news release from Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the journal publishing the findings. "We showed that a low LR at 20 predicts later heavy drinking and alcoholism, even if you control for all these other predictors of alcohol problems at age 20."

Determining someone's response level to alcohol in early adulthood, then, could help that person make life changes that might prevent the development of a drinking problem later in life, Schuckit said.

But he also noted that having a high, or more immediate, reaction to alcohol would not guarantee that a person wouldn't develop a drinking problem, because many other factors can contribute to alcoholism.

The study appears online and will be in the September print issue of the journal.

Given the findings, and because alcoholism tends to be genetically influenced, Schuckit said, alcoholics should talk with their children.

"You need to tell your kids they are at a fourfold increased risk for alcoholism," he said. "If your kid does drink, find out if they can 'drink others under the table,' and warn them that that is a major indication they have the risk themselves."

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more about alcohol abuse.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, news release, May 22, 2009

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