Aims To identify childhood and adolescent factors differentiating heavy alcohol users in early adulthood from more moderate users or abstainers.
Design Low-income participants followed from birth to age 28 years.
Participants A total of 178 adults (95 males) who were first-born children of low-income mothers recruited in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during their third trimester of pregnancy.
Measurements Maternal hostility (24/42 months), externalizing and internalizing behavior problems (9 years), peer acceptance and academic achievement (12 years), maternal alcohol use and participants' drinking behavior (16 years), quantity of alcohol use per occasion (19, 23 and 26 years), alcohol use disorders (28 years).
Findings For men: (i) higher amounts of alcohol consumption at age 16 increased the odds of being a heavy drinker compared to an abstainer (age 19) and a moderate drinker (ages 23 and 26); (ii) lower achievement scores at age 12 and having a mother who drank more when the participant was age 16 increased the odds of being a heavy drinker compared to moderate drinker (age 26). Higher levels of externalizing behavior problems at age 9 and drinking more when the participants were age 16 increased the odds that men would have a current alcohol use disorder at age 28. For women: (i) drinking more at age 16 increased the odds of being a heavy drinker compared to being either an abstainer or a moderate drinker (age 26); (ii) having higher levels of achievement at age 12 increased the odds of being a heavy drinker compared to an abstainer at age 23. Adolescent alcohol use mediated the relation between externalizing behavior at age 9 and alcohol use at age 26 for women.
Conclusions Problem drinking may be the result of a long-term developmental process wherein childhood externalizing behavior problems sets a pathway leading to heavy drinking during and after adolescence.