Study: College Breeds Alcoholism

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College can be a blast, but it can also create alcoholics.

Genetics is known to play a role in the risk of alcoholism. A new study, detailed in the June issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, suggests that college attendance is conducive to and exacerbates the innate predisposition of some young adults to become heavy alcohol users.

“If your genetic makeup predisposes you toward drinking, it may be even more enhanced by attending college,” said lead scientist David Timberlake, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Irvine.

College drinkers

A 1999 Harvard University study revealed that 44 percent of college students surveyed reported engaging in binge drinking in the previous two weeks, with binge drinking defined as consumption of five drinks within two hours for men and four drinks for women. Among U.S. college students, fatal alcohol-related injuries increased from 1,500 in 1998 to more than 1,700 in 2001, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In the new study, Timberlake and his colleagues followed nearly 9,000 students, including 855 sibling pairs, from seventh grade through college, ranging from 12 to 24 years old. The students answered questions about the amount of alcohol they consumed and the regularity of binge drinking at three intervals—the start of the study, one year later and six years later.

Students who didn’t go to college downed more beer than their college-bound peers during high school, but the reverse occurred during college years. About 18 percent of college-goers reported binge drinking in their pre-college years, compared with 32 percent of their peers who didn’t attend college. But by the end of the study, 66 percent of college students reported binge drinking compared with 53 percent of their non-college peers.

In the genes

The scientists also compared the experiences of identical twins, who share the same genes, and other siblings.

For those attending college, they found the link between college attendance and an increase in alcohol consumption was significantly greater for identical twins than for other siblings.

“This suggests a greater degree of genetic influence on alcohol quantity in college pairs compared with the non-college pairs,” say the scientists in the published report of their research.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.