Predicting alcohol misuse in adolescents

The choices youth make during adolescence can greatly affect their health later during adulthood. A recently published article by Stephanie Plenty (Stockholm University), together with researchers at the Centre for Adolescent Health (CAH), shows that different patterns of alcohol use during the adolescent years can shape the way it is consumed as youth mature. The authors found that early patterns of alcohol use predict multiple aspects of alcohol misuse in early adulthood.

The aim of this paper was to investigate how trajectories of adolescent drinking could impact future alcohol misuse. Data from 707 youth from Victoria, Australia were used to identify different patterns in their frequency of alcohol use from 12 to 17 years of age (in grades 6 to 11) and signs of alcohol misuse when they were 19 years of age.

The key findings from the study include:

  • 64% of participants reported HED at 19 years (heavy episodic drinking).
  • 42% had high AUDIT scores (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, indicating possible alcohol dependence).
  • 23% reported multiple social harms (i.e. inappropriate or harmful behaviours from drinking)
  • Steep escalating alcohol use during adolescence presented the greatest risk for alcohol misuse at age 19.
  • Abstinence from alcohol use during adolescence proved a greater prevention from later misuse than slowly increasing alcohol consumption.

Despite some reductions in drinking rates among Australian adolescents, alcohol consumption during this period is associated with later alcohol-related problems and ill-health. These results provide important information needed to develop effective early responses by identifying which young drinkers are at most risk for later alcohol-related problems.

The findings in this article, underscore the need for alcohol policies to promote the non-use and reduced frequency of alcohol use during adolescence in order to decrease the risk of future alcohol misuse. Rapidly escalating alcohol use during adolescence is identified as a key early intervention target due to the heightened risk of future dependence, HED and social harms. The public health benefits of promoting alcohol abstinence during adolescence are, even in comparison to slowly increasing use, are also confirmed.

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