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Research Summary

Early-Onset Drinking May Increase Later Stress-Related Drinking

Drinking in adolescence is associated with a higher likelihood of unhealthy alcohol use later in life. To determine whether stress modifies this relationship, researchers examined data on 26,946 past-year drinkers (mean age of 43 years) from a national survey on alcohol and related conditions.

  • Past-year alcohol consumption and stress were inversely related to age of first drink. Subjects who began to drink at or before age 14 years, versus those who began to drink at or after age 18 years, consumed more alcohol (1.4 versus 0.4 ounces per day) and experienced more stress (2.6 versus 1.6 stressors*) in the past year.
  • In analyses adjusted for potential confounders (e.g., demographics, family history of alcoholism, comorbid psychopathology), alcohol consumption significantly increased by an average of 7% with each additional stressor among subjects who began to drink at or before age 14 years. Such stress-related increases in consumption were not seen in subjects who began to drink at a later age.


Early-onset drinking increases the risks of many later consequences, which clinicians can help prevent. As suggested by this study, clinicians should recognize that heavy drinking is a possible response to stress and should help their patients manage stress in other ways.

Joseph Conigliaro, MD, MPH
*Any of 12 different types of serious stressful life events ranging from serious financial problems to the death of a family member


Dawson DA, Grant BF, Li TK. Impact of age at first drink on stress-reactive drinking. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2007;31(1):69–77.