Taking First Drink Before Age 14 Can Lead to Lifelong Problems

From the WebMD Archives

May 12, 2000 -- When kids take their first drink before age 14, it can trigger lifelong alcohol-abuse problems, a new study shows. It's a wake-up call for parents to pay attention -- and to lock up the liquor cabinet.

"There are pivotal ages that heighten risk of abuse or dependence," researcher David J. DeWit, PhD, tells WebMD. "Our study shows that those critical ages appear to be between 11 and 14." DeWit is a research scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in London, Ontario, Canada. The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, was conducted with David R. Offord, MD, and colleagues at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

The study was based on a survey questionnaire sent randomly to people between 15 and 64 years old living in Ontario. Nearly 5,000 who reported that they had 12 or more drinks during one year in their lives were included in the study. They were asked a series of questions, including "How old were you when you had your first drink?"

"We wanted to make sure it was not sip, that it was a full drink," DeWit says. "Some studies have suggested that sips are less likely to have detrimental impact than a full drink."

His research group found that those who started drinking between ages 11 and 14 were at greatest risk of developing alcohol abuse. Ten years later, when they hit their 20s, 15% of this group were dependent on alcohol. In fact, those who started to drink at age 11 or 12 were nearly 10 times more likely to become alcohol-dependent, compared to those who started at 19 or older.

"All we can do is speculate why the 11-to-14 age is significant," DeWit tells WebMD. "A drink that occurs during that age may be interfering with developmental processes, like social skills and self-concept formation, that are starting to develop. It may interfere because they are vulnerable. ... Studies show that puberty and school changes are acute sources of stress for significant numbers of children. [Stress] may tend to escalate use of alcohol as a means of coping with changes."

It's the age-old message: Monitor your children, DeWit says, "especially when kids reach that critical age of 11 to 14, where they become more and more involved with the peer group outside the home so they're outside the range of influence and view of parents."

Theodore Reich, MD, professor of psychiatry and genetics at Washington University in St. Louis, tells WebMD, reviewed the study for WebMD. "It's a good article in that it documents very clearly ? a massively important problem, kids drinking in their early teens, breaking into their parents' liquor cabinet or supply of alcohol, buying alcohol illicitly," he says. "It may give us some ideas for strategies to decrease risk."

Other studies have shown that boys are more likely to become alcoholics, as are children of alcoholic parents, Reich adds.

Vital Information:

  • Children who take their first alcoholic drink before age 14 are more likely to abuse alcohol later in life.
  • Researchers suspect that drinking at such a young age could interfere with developmental processes.
  • Parents should monitor their children carefully, especially as they become more involved with their peers outside the home.