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The Development of Heavy Drinking and Alcohol-Related Problems from Ages 18 to 37 in a U.S. National Sample

Bengt O. Muthén, Linda K. Muthén

Objective: The purpose of this study is to add to the understanding of the development of heavy alcohol use and alcohol-related problems by examining data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), a general population sample that contains information on alcohol use for the ages 18-37. A key question in this study is how background characteristics of the individual influence this development and whether the influence of these background characteristics changes over time. Method: The data used in this study are a general population sample (N = 7,859) from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). This study uses a multivariate outcome approach that focuses on individual variation in trajectories over age. The statistical analysis uses random coefficients in a latent variable framework. Across-age changes in the importance of the influence of background variables on the outcomes are modeled using varying centering points. Results: A key finding is that dropping out of high school has no effect on alcohol-related problems for individuals in their mid-twenties, but is associated with significantly increased levels of alcohol-related problems for individuals in their mid-thirties. In contrast, going on to college is associated with lower levels of heavy drinking when individuals reach their late twenties and their thirties. Strong gender and ethnicity effects seen in the twenties diminish when individuals reach their thirties. Conclusions: The trajectory analysis expands the knowledge of problematic alcohol development for individuals in their late twenties and thirties. The increasing detrimental effect of dropping out of high school up to the age 37 endpoint of the study raises questions about the effects in later life of dropping out of high school. (J. Stud. Alcohol 61: 290-300, 2000)