Purpose: Alcohol is the most common and frequently used drug and has the potential to cause multiple deleterious effects throughout the lifespan. Because early age at initiation of alcohol use increases this potential and programs and laws are in place to attempt to delay the onset of alcohol use, we studied the relationship between multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and both the likelihood of ever drinking and the age at initiating alcohol use.
Methods: This was a retrospective cohort study of 8417 adult health maintenance organization (HMO) members in California who completed a survey about ACEs, which included childhood abuse and neglect, growing up with various forms of household dysfunction and alcohol use in adolescence and adulthood. The main outcomes measured were ever drinking and age at initiating alcohol use among ever-drinkers for four age categories: < or = 14 years (early adolescence), 15 to 17 years (mid adolescence), and 18 to 20 years (late adolescence); age > or = 21 years was the referent. The relationship between the total number of adverse childhood experiences (ACE score) and early initiation of alcohol use (< or =14 years) among four birth cohorts dating back to 1900 was also examined.
Results: Eighty-nine percent of the cohort reported ever drinking; all individual ACEs except physical neglect increased the risk of ever using alcohol (p < .05). Among ever drinkers, initiating alcohol use by age 14 years was increased two- to threefold by individual ACEs (p < .05). ACEs also accounted for a 20% to 70% increased likelihood of alcohol use initiated during mid adolescence (15-17 years). The total number of ACEs (ACE score) had a very strong graded relationship to initiating alcohol use during early adolescence and a robust but somewhat less strong relationship to initiation during mid adolescence. For each of the four birth cohorts, the ACE score had a strong, graded relationship to initiating alcohol use by age 14 years (p < .05).
Conclusions: Adverse childhood experiences are strongly related to ever drinking alcohol and to alcohol initiation in early and mid adolescence, and the ACE score had a graded or "dose-response" relationship to these alcohol use behaviors. The persistent graded relationship between the ACE score and initiation of alcohol use by age 14 for four successive birth cohorts dating back to 1900 suggests that the stressful effects of ACEs transcend secular changes, including the increased availability of alcohol, alcohol advertising, and the recent campaigns and health education programs to prevent alcohol use. These findings strongly suggest that efforts to delay the age of onset of drinking must recognize the contribution of multiple traumatic and stressful events to alcohol-seeking behavior among children and adolescents.