Alcoholism's Next of Kin
> 1/26/2006 12:27:21 PM

Alcoholism and its effects on children in families with alcoholics has been a hot topic for researchers for decades.  Past research has linked alcoholism with bipolar disorder, depression and everything in between.  This debilitating disease does tremendous amounts of damage on many levels, and has long been associated with high risk behaviors not only in sufferers but in their offspring as well. 

As a press release from the American Psychological Association announced recently, a new study has examined the link between increase use and persistence of drug use in the children of alcoholics.

The study takes as its jumping off point the idea that drug use is highly correlated with age.  As individuals grow older they use drugs less frequently, they "mature out" of the practice.  "In particular, peak use occurs during emerging adulthood (ages 1825) and declines after the mid 20s, with cessation of drug use typically occurring before age 30," the researchers noted. 

Further, "Parental alcoholism has been identified as an important risk factor for escalated use of both alcohol and drugs during young adulthood. In particular, parental alcoholism has been associated both with an early onset of drinking and with trajectories of persistent alcohol use disorders."  The goal here however, was to measure and define the effects of parental alcoholism on the use of illicit drugs from adolescence into adulthood.

To that end, researchers David Flora and Laurie Chassin analyzed data gathered over 15 years, following demographically matched groups of individuals who began the study with a mean age of 13.  By observing and comparing the behaviors of children of alcoholics against their control counterparts, Flora and Chassin were able to draw conclusions about the effects of alcoholism on the continued use of drugs as children pass into adulthood.

Not surprisingly, as they aged, children of alcoholics maintained consistent levels of drug use while the control group grew out of the practice.  This meant that by the time the group reached the 25 to 30 year old range, the children of alcoholics had a much higher rate of drug use than the offspring of non-alcoholics.  Even when parental drug use was factored into calculations, parental alcoholism itself remained a substantial predictor of adult drug use in the children of alcoholics.

The other piece of Flora and Chassin's study looked at the effect of marriage, or "occupying an adult role," on the persistence of drug use beyond young adulthood.  In most cases marriage was directly linked to a precipitous drop off in drug use.  The research notes however, "The relations among marriage and drug use trajectory factors are likely to represent a combination of both role selection and role socialization effects. The finding that a large proportion of married participants abstained from drug use throughout the three age periods can be interpreted as a role selection effect, such that abstinence facilitates entry into marriage and those who maintain substantial levels of drug use during their 20s are less likely to marry."  What is evident though, is that an increase of drug use among men was significantly higher for those who remained unmarried as opposed to those who wed (26% to 4%).

This research, while not earthshaking, does represent an important point in the understanding of the effects of alcoholism on the offspring of alcoholics.  The disease has long been known to move down the family tree, but what Flora and Chassin have shown is that destructive parental drinking habits also establish a pattern that can lead to drug use in adulthood.  While many of their contemporaries are enjoying married life and forming families, children of alcoholics are disproportionately continuing to abuse drugs.  The  factors of inheritance and the impact that alcohol has on the social development are clearly impacting the lives of Adult Children of Alcoholics and these elements should be explored by those battling the Alcohol demons in their 20'-30's. Alcohol consumption should be rethought in adolescence as aberrant behavior not a right of passage and permissiveness of parental consent is an enabling factor that should never be given. Drinking is destructive and there is no way around the reality of its effect on the brain.

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