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Childhood aggressive behavior can lead to alcohol abuse as adults

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Continual aggressive behavior from childhood through late adolescence is a significant predictor of adult alcohol use and abuse, a new University of Michigan study indicates.

In comparison to childhood and adolescent aggression, some variables often thought of as risk factors, such as problems in the family and parents' poor educational background, are weak predictors of children drinking alcohol later in life as adults, said the study's lead author Eric Dubow, an adjunct research scientist at U-M's Institute for Social Research.

"Impulsive, aggressive children seem to have an underlying personality characteristic that manifests itself in a range of later life problem behaviors, including alcohol use and abuse," Dubow said.

"Consequently, it is important for parents to recognize these as problems in their children that need attention. These children need to be taught how to inhibit their impulses and control themselves early in life," he said.

U-M researchers used data from the Columbia County Longitudinal Study, a 40-year project of the development of aggression and competence across generations. The study sampled third graders in Columbia County, NY in 1960, then age 8, until 2000 when they were age 48.

Data collected on the study's participants included measures of aggression, popularity, and IQ tests at age 8; assessment of aggression, popularity, depression and educational attainment at age 19; and reports of alcohol use and problem drinking at ages 30 and 48.

By age 30, men reported a higher frequency and quantity of alcohol use?on average approximately 2 to 4 times a week, 3 to 4 drinks per sitting?compared with females, who consumed alcohol on average once per week, 3 drinks per sitting.

However, at ages 30 and 48, both males and females who had been high on aggression earlier in life reported significantly more alcohol use and problems with alcohol. Participants were not asked to specify if the beverage was liquor, beer, or wine.

The study also found that two sets of variables traditionally viewed as protective factors in the development of problem behavior actually increased the likelihood of alcohol use or alcohol problems.

"First, intellectual achievement (IQ at age 8 and educational attainment at age 19) predicted higher use of alcohol at age 48," said co-author L. Rowell Huesmann, Amos N. Tversky Collegiate Professor of Communication Studies & Psychology. "Second, greater popularity throughout childhood and adolescence was linked to greater alcohol use in early (age 30) adulthood and problem drinking in middle adulthood (age 48)."

The surprising positive relation between education and quantity of drinking may be what Huesmann calls "a wine effect."

"We assessed the quantity of beverage consumed and not the type of alcohol," he said. "Quite probably, higher education is associated with greater wine consumption, and that produces the relation."

On the other hand, Huesmann says that greater childhood and adolescent popularity predict more alcohol problems as an adult because drinking is often done in social groups than alone.

The findings appear in the May supplement issue of Addiction. Dubow and Huesmann co-wrote the article with Paul Boxer, an assistant professor at Rutgers University.

U-M's National Science Foundation-supported Center for the Analysis of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood, which is located in ISR's Research Center for Group Dynamics, sponsored the research.

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Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive.

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