Alcoholism Starts in Teen Years, But No One Notices the Problem

It is common knowledge that the earlier alcoholics get help, the better their chances of recovery.

This is why the results of two new studies released this week are troubling to those who work in the field of alcoholic rehabilitation.

The first study indicates that although over most alcoholics get addicted as teenagers and pre-teens, they are less likely to seek help than older alcoholics.

The second concludes that at least half of all parents of teenage alcoholics are unaware of their children’s problems.

The first study appears in the September issue of Pediatrics magazine. Led by Dr. Ralph Hingson, director of the National Institute on Alcoholic Abuse and Alcoholism, a team of researchers interviewed 43,000 Americans and found that over 12% are alcoholics.

“Our analyses found that almost half of them became alcohol dependent before age 21, two-thirds before age 25, and 20% before age 30 or older,” Dr. Hingson reported. “But the odds of ever seeking help were lower among those dependent before ages 18, 20 and 25.”

Dr. Hingson said what was really unfortunate was that the younger the age of the onset of addiction, the more likely the person would have more dependence symptoms and experience longer episodes of dependence.

Dr. Hingson reported that pediatric medical care providers under-diagnose alcohol use, abuse and dependence among teenagers. He recommends that screening and counseling be expanded among adolescents and college students who are heavy drinkers.

The NIH researchers speculate that because so many young people are drinking and because they do not have adult responsibilities, their alcoholism goes unnoticed as a normal part of growing up.

It also goes unnoticed by their parents, according to a second study by Washington University School of Medicine, to be published in the October 2006 issue of the journal, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

After interviewing 591 adolescents and their parents, researchers concluded that over half of parents did not recognize their teenager’s alcoholism.

Parents were particularly oblivious to the alcoholic habits of 12 and 13-year-olds, the youngest children in the study, reported Dr. Laura Bierut, co-author of the study. “This is very troubling because research has shown that starting to use alcohol at a young age is a risk factor for developing substance abuse or dependence in the future.”

It also means that intervention is delayed and thereby becomes less effective.

The two studies are particularly troubling because two years ago the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) began to shift its focus to younger alcoholics.

Dr. Ting-Lai Li, NIAA director, testified before Congress in April 2004 that the United States needs to shift its perspective to the prevention and treatment of teenage alcoholism.

“Historically, alcoholism has been characterized as a disease of mid-to-late adulthood,” he said. “By then the disease is usually in its late, severe and chronic form.”

He urged Congress to allocate more money to early prevention programs as a way of reducing the suffering of some eighteen million American alcoholics and the financial burden of $185 billion that alcoholism costs the nation every year.

Dr. Li said that new data indicates that addictions have their rates of onset in childhood and adolescence, and this means “youth, encompassing the time of maximum vulnerability, must be the critical window of opportunity for prevention.”