OBJECTIVE. We explored whether people who become alcohol dependent at younger ages are more likely to seek alcohol-related help or treatment or experience chronic relapsing dependence.

METHODS. In 2001–2002 the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism completed a face-to-face interview survey with a multistage probability sample of 43 093 adults aged ≥18, with a response rate of 81%. We focused on 4778 persons diagnosable as alcohol dependent ever in their lives using Diagnositic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition criteria. Logistic regression examined whether respondents ever sought alcohol-related help or treatment, controlling for respondent demographics, number of dependence symptoms experienced, smoking and illicit drug use, childhood antisocial personality and depression, family history of alcoholism, and age of drinking onset.

RESULTS. Of persons ever alcohol dependent, 15% were diagnosable before age 18, 47% before age 21, and two thirds before age 25. Twenty-eight percent reported ≥2 dependence episodes, 45% experienced an episode exceeding 1 year, and 34% reported 6 or 7 dependence criteria. Relative to those first alcohol dependent at ≥30 years, 21% of those ever dependent, the odds of ever seeking help were lower among those first dependent before ages 18, 20, and 25. Yet, persons first dependent at ≤25 years had significantly greater odds of experiencing multiple dependence episodes, episodes exceeding 1 year, and more dependence symptoms. Analyses indicated that the previously reported increased odds that persons who start to drink at an early age develop features of chronic relapsing dependence may have resulted from early drinkers being more likely to develop alcohol dependence at younger ages. This, in turn, increased their odds of experiencing multiple and longer episodes of alcohol dependence with more symptoms.

CONCLUSIONS. Adolescents need to be screened and counseled about alcohol, and treatment services should be reinforced by programs and policies to delay age of first alcohol dependence.

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