Objective: This study examined the association between age at alcohol use onset and adult alcohol misuse and dependence by testing the sensitive-period hypothesis that early adolescence (11-14) is a vulnerable period of development during which initiating alcohol use is particularly harmful.
Method: Data came from a longitudinal panel of 808 participants recruited in 1981. Participants were followed through age 33 in 2008 with 92% retention.
Results: Onset of alcohol use before age 11 (late childhood), when compared with initiation during early adolescence, was related to an increased chronicity of adult alcohol dependence, even after accounting for sociodemographic controls and other substance use in adolescence. The present study finds no evidence that early adolescence is a particularly sensitive period for the onset of alcohol use. Findings related to the onset of regular alcohol use and the chronicity of alcohol dependence suggest that the onset of regular drinking before age 21 is problematic, but no one adolescent period is more sensitive than others. Specifically, although all age groups that started drinking regularly before age 21 had a greater rate of alcohol dependence in adulthood, initiation of regular use of alcohol at or before age 14 was not related to greater chronicity of alcohol dependence than the initiation of regular use of alcohol in middle or late adolescence.
Conclusions: The findings suggest the importance of delaying the onset of alcohol use through prevention efforts as early as the elementary grades. In addition, prevention efforts should focus on preventing the onset of regular drinking before age 21.