Problem Drinking Early in Life Linked to Health Problems Decades Later

Problems Persist Even When Alcohol Dependence Ends Early On

By Brenda L. Mooney

MENLO PARK, CA—Is problem drinking among young military servicemembers a life sentence for ill health?

A new study suggested it could be in some cases. It reported that veterans who had a problem with alcohol dependence for at least five years when they were young still face adverse health effects later in life, even if they overcame problem drinking years before.

The article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs detailed generally reduced physical and mental health in 664 male veterans, now in their 60s, who had been dependent on alcohol as young adults.1

What was most surprising, according to the VA authors, was that problems persisted even in those veterans who had overcome their drinking problems by age 30.

Lead researcher Randy Haber, PhD, of the Palo Alto, CA, VA Health Care System, noted that heavy drinking at any point in life might have hidden consequences. He pointed out that previous studies have shown how the brain and other bodily functions can be affected by excessive drinking over the long term.

This study, he suggested, makes the case that years of alcohol dependence during young adulthood can result in silent but “permanent” injuries which can lead to serious health problems later in life.

That could have long-term implications for the VA. The most recent DoD survey of excessive alcohol use among active-duty personnel revealed widespread prevalence of “binge” drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks for males or four or more drinks for females on a single occasion, according to a study earlier this year in the journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews.2

Across the U.S. armed services, 33% of personnel reported binge drinking during the 30 days preceding the survey, ranging from 24% in the Air Force to 49% in the Marines. In fact, 20% of male and female active-duty personnel were found to be engaged in heavy drinking, which was defined as binge drinking at least once a week during the past 30 days.

With colleagues from the Palo Alto VAMC and the Hunter Holmes McGuire VAMC in Richmond, VA, Haber used a larger study of Vietnam-era veterans, focusing on 368 men who did not report any symptoms of alcohol dependence at any point in adulthood, 221 who had at least three symptoms of dependence in young adulthood and middle-age and 75 who had symptoms in early adulthood but not after the age of 30.

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