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Warning over early exposure to alcohol

Giving children alcohol at an early age increases their risk of becoming drink-dependent at a later stage in life, according to new research.
The claim challenges the long-held notion that introducing children to alcohol in small measures over time may prevent teenage binge drinking.

The new study, by the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), suggests that parents may have got it wrong. It found that if young people have their first taste of alcohol before the age of 15, it sharply raises their risk of becoming alcohol dependent later in life.

Deborah Lawson, a research scientist at the NIAAA, said: “We can see for the first time the association between an early ‘age of first drink’ and an increased risk of alcohol disorders that persist into adulthood.”

The study involved data gathered from more than 22,000 young Americans over three years, which matched the age when a first alcoholic drink was taken with first incidence of alcohol abuse or dependence.

The NIAAA’s associate director, Howard Moss, said the study showed that it was important to delay the onset of drinking behaviour for as long as possible.

The findings have emerged amid concern over the level of binge drinking among teenagers in Britain. In Scotland, a recent survey of 13-year-olds found 20% had had a drink in the previous week. Among 15-year-olds, 40% of boys and 46% of girls said they had had an alcoholic drink in the past week.

Until now, it has been argued that exposing young teenagers to alcohol by giving them watered-down drinks is the best way them to educate them to consume alcohol responsibly.

But the NIAAA study suggests early exposure to alcohol even in small quantities is a risk in itself. It means that giving children alcohol to prevent problems may have the opposite effect.

One theory is that teenagers’ brains are developing so fast that exposure to intoxicants can create a link between alcohol consumption and pleasure.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at University College London, said: “The young brain is very malleable and changes fast in response to new influences.”
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source: Scotland On Sunday

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