Drinking early in life may trigger genetic alcohol dependency

drinkIn some cultures, it’s the norm to give kids a sip of wine or beer with dinner (Italians, for example, traditionally serve wine at the family dinner table). But recent evidence suggests the practice is not as innocuous as it seems. A study in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research finds that genetic predisposition to alcohol dependence may kick into gear when kids take their first drink at an early age. The researchers reveal that the younger an individual is when they take their first alcoholic drink, the greater their risk for alcohol dependence and the more relevant genetic factors become.

John Knight, MD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research, hopes that this study brings attention to a troubling problem. “The brain is more susceptible when young,” he says. “There are greater opportunities for a longer period of time to cause damage to the brain.”

Knight adds that not only does alcohol cause damage to the young brain, it also results in risky behavior. And risky behavior exposes kids to environmental factors that could impact and encourage alcohol dependence in adulthood. “Adolescents respond differently to alcohol than adults,” Knight says. Alcohol doesn’t have the same sleep-inducing effect it has on adults; their heightened energy levels, coupled with impaired judgment, can lead to more accidents.

According to Knight, the number one health-related problem for youth is alcohol dependence. “Alcohol kills way more kids than all of the drugs put together,” he says. For more information on substance abuse, click here.