When a child has his first alcoholic drink may depend much more on his own behavior and environment than a family history of alcohol problems.

A new study shows children’s environment and how they react to that environment are more important determinants of the age of first drink than genetic factors.

"A number of studies have demonstrated that an early [age of first drink] is associated with increased rates of childhood psychiatric disorders, lowered success in school and extracurricular activities, increased criminal behavior, and lowered overall life satisfaction and productivity," says researcher Samuel Kuperman, director of the division of child psychiatry at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, in a news release.

Researchers say the study was designed to better understand what factors affect when children start experimenting with alcohol, and the results suggest that a family history of alcohol abuse or alcoholism may not play a major role in influencing age of first drink.

Campus Alcohol Trouble

What Affects Age of First Drink?

In the study, researchers compared factors influencing age of first drink in two groups of children aged 7 to 17: one group of 339 children from families with a history of alcohol problems, and a comparison group of 101 children with no family history of alcohol problems. Age of first drink was determined by the response to the question, “How old were you when you had your very first whole drink?”

The results, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, showed that child and environmental factors were much stronger predictors of age of first drink than a family history of alcohol abuse or alcoholism.

Researchers found three factors explained 45 percent of the variance in age of first drink:

—Age at the time of the study interview (38 percent)

—The child’s score on a behavior/conduct scale (6 percent)

—Number of alcohol-dependent siblings (0.5 percent)

Kuperman says no family history measures of alcohol dependence or antisocial personality disorder were significant predictors of age of first drink.

"While there is a small contribution to the prediction of [age of first drink] based on the number of adult siblings with alcohol dependence," says Kuperman, "I believe this actually supports the belief that genetic loading for alcohol dependence does not per se contribute to early [age of first drink]. Having many siblings with alcohol dependence may somehow represent an environment conducive to early drinking."

Researchers say the findings should build a better understanding of whether the role of age of first drink does or does not play in affecting later problems with alcohol in children and adolescents.

Students Back Some Tougher Drinking Rules

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Kuperman, S Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, October 2005; vol 29. News release, University of Iowa.