Adults who abused alcohol as teenagers report dissatisfaction and poor health in middle age, study finds – VCU News

Alcohol abuse by teenagers is a catalyst for poor life satisfaction and health outcomes later in life, a new study led by the University of Virginia and Rutgers has found.

The researchers, whose study, “Examining the Relationships Between Adolescent Alcohol Abuse and Later Health Outcomes,” published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research this month, found:

  • Higher rates of alcohol abuse among adolescents are associated with higher rates of alcohol problems in young adults.
  • Drinking problems in participants’ 20s were associated with alcohol struggles in their 30s.
  • This drinking behavior is associated with poorer physical health and lower life satisfaction.

The findings, the researchers say, show the indirect influence of teenage alcohol on physical health and life outcomes in midlife and highlight the need for prevention strategies for better long-term health.

“Understanding these long-term effects will expand our understanding of early targeted interventions in adolescence that can prevent or mitigate long-term negative health consequences and improve quality of life across the lifespan,” said Angela Pascal, first author of the study and a graduate student at doctorate in health psychology program in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences.

Unlike other studies of this kind, which find that adolescent alcohol abuse directly affects later-life substance use and mental health outcomes, Pascal, her co-author Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., Assoc. at Rutgers University, who previously worked at VCU, and their co-authors found that adolescent drinking may indirectly affect long-term physical health and life satisfaction, rather than directly affecting it.

“Although we observed these effects, they were somewhat modest, suggesting that adolescent alcohol abuse is not the only driver of later poor physical health and life dissatisfaction,” said Pascal, who suggested that ongoing problems related to alcohol may also play a role.

Also, where previous studies of adolescent alcohol abuse often looked at health outcomes in the years shortly after teens were examined in young adulthood, Pascal said, this study looked at health over several decades into early middle age.

“This study is unique in that it seeks to understand whether the adverse effects on physical health persist beyond your 20s,” Pascal said. “Our findings suggest that adolescent drinking and the consequences that follow are observed two decades later at multiple developmental stages.”

The researchers defined adolescent alcohol abuse based on responses to frequency of drinking, frequency of alcohol use, and alcohol problems at ages 16, 17, and 18.5 years. Early midlife outcomes they measured included life satisfaction, physical symptoms, and self-rated health at age 34.

Using questionnaire data from 2,733 twin pairs born in Finland in the late 1970s, the study controlled for nature and nurture variables—shared genetics and shared rearing environment, respectively.

“The longitudinal twin design is particularly useful for elucidating whether there are confounding family factors that predispose someone to alcohol abuse in adolescence and to poorer physical health and well-being later in early middle age,” Salvatore said. “This is because the twin design allows us to compare exposures and outcomes over time within the same family.”

“The findings—and in particular the finding that the effects remained constant even after controlling for genetic and environmental factors that co-twins share—underscore the importance of preventive interventions targeting adolescent alcohol misuse and, in turn, mitigation of health consequences later in adulthood,” Pascale said.

Authors of the study include Pascal, Salvatore and their co-authors: Mallory Stevenson in the Department of Psychology at VCU; Peter Barr, Ph.D., of SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University; Richard Wicken, Ph.D., and Richard J. Rose, Ph.D., of Indiana University; Antti Latvala, Ph.D., Sari Aaltonen, Ph.D., Maarit Piirtola, Ph.D., Jaakko Kaprio, MD, Ph.D., of the University of Helsinki, who led the Finnish twin cohort study; Hermine Maes, Ph.D., of the Virginia Institute of Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU; and Daniel M. Dick, Ph.D., of Rutgers University, also formerly of VCU.

This study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Academy of Finland.