When it comes to alcohol, dangerous drinking is notorious on college campuses. But college students aren’t the only ones at risk.

New research shows that risky alcohol habits are common among young adults, regardless of college attendance.

That’s not to say that all youths binge drink, drink and drive, or otherwise misuse alcohol. But the study does highlight a vulnerable time in the late teens and early 20s.

The report by the University of Michigan’s C. Raymond Bingham, PhD, and colleagues appears in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Campus Alcohol Trouble

At-Risk Age

“Alcohol use can begin as early as childhood but typically begins during the teen years, and increases steadily from adolescence into young adulthood, where it reaches its highest lifetime level,” Bingham says, in a news release.

Young adults hit the legal drinking age, become more independent, and often lack lots of adult responsibilities, he observes.

“Although college is typically known for frequent partying and alcohol consumption, individuals who do not attend college also on average experience their highest lifetime levels of alcohol consumption when they are young adults,” Bingham says.

Bingham is a research associate professor in the University of Michigan’s division of social and behavioral analysis. He also works in the university’s psychiatry department and Transportation Research Institute.

Students Back Some Tougher Drinking Rules

Alcohol Study

Bingham and colleagues studied nearly 2,000 youths. The students were recruited in fifth or sixth grade.

The students were surveyed about their alcohol use in 12th grade. When they were 24 years old, they did a follow-up phone interview with the researchers.

Data covered people who hadn’t married or had children by age 24. That’s because when people marry or start a family, they often turn away from their partying ways.

Are You a Risky Drinker?

Alcohol Misuse Common

The researchers split the participants into four groups based on how much school they attended:

—College graduates

—College attendees (some college but no degree)

—High school graduates (with no college attendance)

—High school attendees (with no high school degree)

Men and women in each group were studied separately.

The key finding: Risky drinking was common, regardless of education level.

“It is clear that alcohol misuse during the late teenage and early young adult years is not limited to college undergraduates,” the researchers write.

Moderate Drinking OK for Most People

Drinking Details

Here are some of the study’s other results.

People who didn’t attend college had higher levels of at-risk drinking in 12th grade. Their peers who went to college caught up with them later.

Men who completed college had the biggest rise in at-risk drinking from 12th grade to young adulthood. Women who completed college had the lowest levels of at-risk drinking.

Young adults living at home with their parents were less likely to binge drink, drive drunk, or get drunk often.

Taking Diversity Into Account

The researchers suggest tailoring messages about risky drinking to different groups of young adults.

They note that after high school, people have many paths to choose from, including college, trade schools, work, and military service.

That diversity must be considered when teaching youths about the dangers of misusing alcohol and when researching the topic, write Bingham and colleagues.

Doing so will be “a considerable challenge,” Bingham says, in the news release.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Bingham, C. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, December 2005; vol 29. News release, University of Michigan.