REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

NEW YORK - Delaying the start of alcohol drinking might curb subsequent rates of alcohol-related injuries.

Interviews with a representative sampling of the U.S. adult population suggest a link between starting to drink at an early age and not only unintentionally injuring oneself while under the influence of alcohol, but with injuring other people, Dr. Ralph W. Hingson told Reuters Health.

Among more than 34,600 adults, those who began drinking as teenagers, versus age 21 years and older, were more likely to report driving under the influence of alcohol and to have placed themselves in a risky situation after drinking, Hingson and Dr. Wenxing Zha, both from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in Bethesda, Maryland, report in the journal Pediatrics.

Drinking onset at 16 and younger, versus 21 and older, appears to double the likelihood of alcohol-related driving or unintentional injuries, as well as the risk for alcohol dependence or abuse, the investigators report.

The study participants were about 45 years old on average in 2001-2002, when they were asked about the age at which they began drinking alcohol.

A second interview between 2004 and 2005, asked participants about their subsequent drinking habits and whether or not they had engaged in risky behaviors such as driving, swimming, and operating machinery, while under the influence of alcohol since their first interview.

Analyses of the interview findings revealed an association between younger age at drinking onset and increased risk for later alcohol dependence or abuse, driving while under the influence of alcohol, and alcohol-related injuries.

The risk for unintentional injuries to themselves and others among those who began drinking as teenagers did not change when the investigators accounted for other injury risk factors and sociodemographic characteristics associated with alcohol use.

Young people were disproportionately likely to be involved in injuries due to alcohol abuse, Hingson said.

He and Zha note that one-third of unintentional injuries while under the influence of alcohol occurred among 25-year-old respondents, even though this age group represented a small proportion (7 percent) of the study population.

To reduce unintentional alcohol-related injuries, Hingson and Zha call for studies to examine ways to delay or reduce adolescent drinking.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, June 2009.