Newswise — According to a new study, personality traits are associated with changes in alcohol use and problematic drinking, but these relationships may vary across the lifespan. The study explores alcohol consumption in the context of adult developmental stages. It suggests that changes in impulsivity and in the perceived rewards of alcohol are strongly related to changes in drinking behavior from ages 18-21, and to a lesser degree until at least age 35. Problematic drinking is known to be associated with impulsivity traits: a lack of planning (impulse control), sensation seeking, and the anticipated benefits from alcohol, such as sociability and making activities more enjoyable. Such traits evolve through adolescence and early adulthood. Understanding how shifting factors may elevate the risk to certain people at certain times potentially helps target interventions aimed at reducing heavy drinking and preventing alcohol use disorder (AUD). The study in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research presents a novel analytic approach. Researchers modeled a developmental arc of drinking behavior in young adults — including and beyond emerging adulthood — and tracked the correlations between changes in impulsivity and alcohol use.

The study involved data from 478 adults recruited as first-year college students who were assessed seven times through early adulthood (ages 18–35); half reported a family history of AUD. Investigators applied a novel statistical technique for identifying age-related shifts in young adults’ alcohol use and the changing factors that may influence it. Based on that analysis, they identified distinct periods of change in alcohol use during the college years (18–21), when the participants underwent four annual assessments, and the post-college years (21–35), involving three more assessments. At each evaluation the participants filled out questionnaires on the quantity and frequency of drinks they typically consumed, their experiences with heavy drinking including symptoms of AUD, and their impulsivity risk factors (lack of planning, sensation seeking, and the rewards they anticipated from alcohol). The researchers used further statistical analysis to examine whether changes in participants’ impulsivity risk factors are associated with changes in alcohol consumption during the two developmental periods.

During the college years, the participants reported changes in alcohol behavior that largely correlated with their evolving risk factors. This was especially notable for impulsivity. Lack of planning correlated with sensation seeking, and changes in these factors were associated with changes in heavy drinking from ages 18-21. Steeper increases in anticipated rewards from drinking correlated with steeper rises in alcohol use. During the post-college years, lack of planning and sensation seeking diverged, and the correlation between these traits and alcohol behavior weakened. That said, impulsivity traits remained associated with heavy drinking. Steeper decreases in the perceived rewards of drinking were associated with steeper declines in alcohol use. Across both developmental periods, changes in sensation seeking were related to evolving AUD symptoms, though lack of planning was not.

The study points to the value of exploring developmental risk factors across distinct life stages, the researchers say. They identified sensation seeking and the perceived rewards of drinking as promising targets for interventions through the college and post-college years. Ongoing research involving diverse population samples, environments, and statistical modeling is recommended.

Delineating developmental periods in adulthood suggests age-related shifts in the correlates of alcohol use and problems. J. Ellingson, A. Littlefield, P. Wood, K Sher. (pp xxx)