Parenting competitions can start early. How old children are when they utter their first words, walk or learn to read can all be topics of parental comparisons. But a new study in Finland found a twist: Children with advanced language skills were more likely to drink alcohol as teens.
Researchers found the connection in a study of two surveys of twins, including 5,457 families total. Parents were asked to remember when each twin reached certain milestones, and about their other traits in childhood. Then, the twins were surveyed about their smoking, drinking and drug habits at least four times between ages 11 and 25.
The twin in a family who started talking first, who read first and who was more expressive as a child was also more likely to start drinking first. The language-alcohol link held true for both surveys of twins; the set born between 1975 and 1979 and the set born between 1983 and 1987.
Children with advanced language skills also drank more often, and became more intoxicated when they drank. And they were more likely to report a "sensation seeking" personality trait, according to the study published today (Sept. 12) in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
"The finding of these studies were partly surprising to us," said study researcher Antti Latvala, of the University of Helsinki. Previous research showed poor cognitive abilities in teenage years may predict problems with alcohol abuse in adulthood, he said. [The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today's Parents]
Twins cancel outside influences
There is an inherent strength in twin studies. The children grow up in the same family environment, and usually attend the same schools with the same peers. Even fraternal twins share half their genes. Any differences between the two twins are more likely to be individual traits, not an outside influence.
However, the twin study couldn't determine whether the advanced language skills caused the drinking behavior. It could be the better the child communicates, the more friends he or she has, and the more likely the teen is invited to a party with alcohol. "Teens very rarely drink alone," Latvala said.
Or there could be some connection between language skills and the thrill-seeking personality trait also found among the drinking teens in the study. But precocious kindergarteners are hardly destined for addiction treatment, Latvala said. The study didn't follow the teens long enough to see who ended up abusing alcohol, and there is a difference between teenage drinking, and teenage problem drinking.
Is all teenage drinking a problem?
Genetics contribute to about half of an individual's risk for having alcohol-related problems, said Dr. Victor Karpyak, medical director of the Mayo Clinic's Intensive Addiction Program. The family home environment and epigenetics play roles as well.
So while Latvala's study could focus on what traits drive children to try drinking, it couldn't tell if those traits were also predisposing them to become alcoholics, Karpyak said.
Yet teenage drinking by itself is a warning sign of a potential addiction. "Everybody increases their risk [of addiction] if they drink at a young age," said Tammy Granger, the corporate director of Caron Treatment Centers' Student Assistance Program, which provides alcohol prevention and intervention services. Granger said taking your first drink before age 15 has a much higher associated risk with alcohol abuse than starting to drink at older ages.
Teenage drinking is common. A majority of Finnish teens drink, and a large minority – 42 percent of U.S. high school seniors – use alcohol, according to the Monitoring the Future Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health. But not every teenager who drinks will develop a problem. Other major risks for alcohol abuse in teens are anxiety, depression, ADHD, a family history of alcoholism and other social issues.
Granger said parents should warn their children about any family history of alcoholism. But they also shouldn't make assumptions that their well-behaved, high achieving children are immune from addiction.
"If a student is drinking at home, and they're not out driving, it does not mean they are safe, or that they are going to be at a lower risk of addiction than kids who are drinking at a party," Granger said.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. ET on Sept. 13 to clarify the speaker's meaning in the last paragraph.