Getting drunk before the age of 15 may increase the risk of early death.
Researchers found that individuals who first became intoxicated prior to the age of 15 may be at greater risk of early death, compared with those who did not get drunk in adolescence, or those who first got drunk later in their teens.
The findings were recently published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), youths aged 12 to 20 years account for around 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States, despite alcohol consumption being illegal under the age of 21.
Figures from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism state that by the age of 15 years, around 33 percent of teenagers have had at least one alcoholic beverage. By the age of 18, this rises to 60 percent.
The risks of underage drinking are vast. Not only does it increase the likelihood of drinking problems in adulthood, but it can also interfere with brain development and lead to other risky behaviors, such as drug use or unprotected sex.
Alcohol misuse can also raise the risk of certain of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
For the new study, lead author Hui Hu, Ph.D., of the College of Public Health at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and colleagues sought to determine how early-onset drunkenness affects mortality risk.
Early death risk increased by 47 percent
Dr. Hu and team analyzed the data from the 1981-1983 National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area Survey, identifying 14,848 adults who had been interviewed about their alcohol consumption, including the occurrence of any drunken episodes and the presence of alcohol use disorders.
The researchers then linked these data with information from the National Death Index that was recorded up until 2007, in order to determine which of the participants had passed away.
Eight percent of the study participants reported having their first drunken episode before the age of 15.
Compared with participants who first got drunk at the age of 15 or later, those whose first drunken episode occurred before the age of 15 were found to have a 23 percent greater risk of early death.
When compared with subjects who did not get drunk at all during adolescence, the risk of premature death for those who first got drunk before the age of 15 increased to 47 percent.
The team says that further studies are needed to fully understand the mechanisms behind their findings, but Dr. Hu believes that there are a number of factors at play.
"People with early onset of drunkenness are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder, more likely to engage in other alcohol-related health behaviors such as smoking, fighting, unplanned and unprotected sex, and more likely to have low academic performance," Dr. Hu explains.
"Although the causes remain uncertain and future studies are warranted, findings from this study suggest that early drunkenness is a strong predictor for premature mortality and can be used to identify high-risk populations for interventions."
Hui Hu, Ph.D.