Background: Although an early age at first drink has been repeatedly associated with substantially elevated rates of alcoholism, the mechanisms underlying this association remain unclear. We investigated whether the association of age at first drink (AFD) with alcoholism was more consistent with the hypothesis that the former causes the latter or the hypothesis that both are manifestations of some common vulnerability.
Methods: We investigated whether substance use and mental health disorders, education, IQ, and personality were associated with AFD in a sample of 2670 adults; whether P3 amplitude was associated with AFD in a sample of 1127 17 year olds; and whether indicators of disinhibitory psychopathology assessed at age 11 predicted AFD by age 14 in a sample of 1343 adolescents.
Results: In adults, AFD was associated not only with alcohol dependence, but also with a broad array of indicators of disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology including nicotine dependence, illicit drug abuse and dependence, conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, underachievement in school, and the personality trait of constraint. In 17 year olds, AFD was also associated with reduced P3 amplitude, a well-documented psychophysiological marker of alcoholism risk. Finally, in the early-adolescence sample, measures of behavioral disinhibition, including oppositionality, hyperactivity/impulsivity, and inattentiveness assessed at age 11 predicted drinking onset by age 14.
Conclusions: Our findings indicated that AFD is not specifically associated with alcoholism but rather is correlated with a broad range of indicators of disinhibited behavior and psychopathology. Moreover, individuals who first drink at a relatively early age manifest elevated rates of disinhibitory behavior and psychopathology before they first try alcohol. Taken together, these findings suggest that the association of AFD with alcoholism reflects, at least in part, a common underlying vulnerability to disinhibitory behavior. Whether an early AFD directly influences risk of adult alcoholism remains unclear.