Study finds alcohol dependency in adolescence linked with depression risk

Scientists examined how problematic drinking in young people may increases the risk of developing depression

Study finds alcohol dependency in adolescence linked with depression risks iStock

Adolescents who show signs of alcohol dependence are more likely to develop depression by their mid-20s, a study suggests.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) and the University of Bristol also found that drinking large amounts of alcohol regularly, but with no signs of dependency, did not predict the risk of depression.

The scientists looked at the association between alcohol consumption and signs of problematic drinking, or dependence, at age 18, and depression six years later at age 24.

An inability to stop drinking, failure to meet normal expectations due to drinking, and feeling a need to drink after a heavy session, as well as harmful effects such as drink-related memory loss, were considered signs of alcohol dependence.

Co-lead author Dr Gemma Lewis, UCL Psychiatry, said: “By using a large, longitudinal dataset, we have found evidence that problematic drinking patterns in late adolescence may increase the risk of developing depression years later.

“Problematic drinking patterns could be a warning sign of future mental health problems, so helping young people to avoid problematic alcohol use could have long-term benefits to their mental health.”

The study involved 3,902 people who are part of the Children of the 90s birth cohort study (Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children – ALSPAC) – a group of parents and their children born in the south west of England in 1991 and 1992.

Published in The Lancet Psychiatry, the research found that people who appeared to be dependent on alcohol at age 18 (or at any age from 17 to 22) were more likely than their peers to have depression at age 24.

According to the findings, those with a score of zero on the alcohol dependence scale at age 18 face an 11% probability of depression by age 24, compared to 15% for those with a score of one on the scale.

An increase from zero to one on the alcohol dependency scale represents a 28% increase in the probability of not being able to stop drinking once started and a 33% increase in the probability of failing to do what was normally expected of you.

The research suggests the relationship remains even when factors like substance use and depressive symptoms at age 16 are taken into consideration.

According to the scientists, this indicates there may be a causal relationship between alcohol dependence and subsequent depression that is not explained by poor overall mental health in adolescence.

How much alcohol someone consumed was not alone associated with an increased risk of depression.

Scientists say there may be a causal relationship between alcohol dependence in late adolescence and subsequent depressioniStock

The experts say this may be partly due to the fact that drinking in late adolescence is often tied with social contact and reflects social norms.

Co-lead author Dr Gemma Hammerton, University of Bristol, said: “While we found that alcohol consumption alone did not appear to increase the probability of depression, heavy drinking can be a precursor to dependence, and can have harmful physical health impacts in the longer term as well.

“High frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption therefore remain important as targets to prevent or reduce during adolescence.

“Public health interventions to prevent depression could target problematic alcohol use – such as if alcohol is having a negative impact on a person’s personal relationships or responsibilities – which is likely to occur before dependence, and involve high frequency and quantity of consumption.”

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council and Alcohol Research UK (now Alcohol Change UK).

Mark Leyshon, senior research and policy manager at Alcohol Change UK, said: “Alcohol consumption amongst 18 to 24-year-olds has been falling for some time.

“However, there remains a significant number of young people who use alcohol in a harmful way.

“There were over 40,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions amongst under-24s in 2019, and more than a quarter of these were for mental and behavioural disorders as a result of alcohol.

“The findings from this new study reinforce the importance of protecting young people from alcohol harm, through early intervention and proper funding of youth addictions services so that the right support and treatment is there for everyone who needs it.”

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