Researchers Say Drinking During Puberty Could Lead to Alcohol Problems In Adulthood

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Are kids who drink during puberty more likely than other young people to become heavy drinkers once they are older? According to a new study conducted by researchers in Germany, that seems to be the case.

According to the study, set to be published later this year in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, kids who have their first drink during puberty are more likely than youth who begin drinking before puberty to engage in heavier alcohol consumption as young adults.

The report targeted nearly 300 young people who consumed alcohol during puberty, with follow up interviews and questionnaires asking about contemporary drinking habits conducted when the subjects were 19, 22 and 23.

According to researchers, the studies revealed that individuals who started drinking during puberty had a tendency to not only drink more, but drink more frequently than those who had their first drinks before or after puberty.

“Common thinking in alcohol research was that the earlier adolescents begin, the more deleterious become their drinking habits,” said Miriam Schneider, Research Group Developmental Neuropsychopharmacology leader at the University of Heidelberg’s Central Institute of Mental Health. “However, a closer look at the statistics revealed a peak risk of alcohol use disorders for those beginning at 12-to-14 years of age, while even earlier beginners seemed to have a slightly lower risk.”

Individuals who had their first drinks in puberty were found to have higher Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) scores as young adults. Since researchers found neither pre-puberty nor post-puberty periods to represent “risk time windows,” the report urges alcohol intervention programs to focus on adolescents and those in their early teenage years.

Researchers say that neurobiological changes during puberty may impact a young person’s behavior. Because one’s “reward sensitivity” as at its highest peak during these transitional years, the brains of young people are “highly vulnerable” to the effects of alcohol and other drugs.

“Puberty is a very critical developmental period due to ongoing neurodevelopmental processes in the brain,” Schneider concluded.

“It is exactly during puberty that substances like drugs of abuse -- alcohol, cannabis, etc. -- may induce the most destructive and also persistent effects on the still developing brain, which may in some cases even result in neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia or addictive disorders.”

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