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March 1989

Age of Alcoholism Onset: I. Relationship to Psychopathology

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, City University of New York, and the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Bronx, New York.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1989;46(3):225-230. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1989.01810030031004

• Numerous attempts have been made to subdivide populations of alcoholics into homogeneous subgroups. Although no consensus has been reached about the characteristics of these subgroups, a number of classification schemes have identified a subgroup of patients with a high genetic loading for alcoholism, an early onset of alcoholism, a severe course, and coexisting psychiatric problems consisting of aggressive tendencies or criminality. In a recent typology proposed by Cloninger on the basis of adoption studies, this subgroup has been classified as type 2. Another group of patients who were found to differ in their mode of inheritance and clinical characteristics was classified as type 1. The identification of etiologically homogeneous subgroups is easier in studies of adoptees than in studies of individuals who were not adopted. In an attempt to divide alcoholics into two groups of individuals presenting type 1 and type 2 characteristics, we used as a criterion the age of alcoholism onset because type 2 alcoholics as well as their fathers had been found to abuse alcohol at a younger age than type 1 patients. Patients with an onset of alcoholism before their 20th birthday were found to have a significantly higher incidence of paternal alcoholism and were twice as likely to have been incarcerated for crimes involving physical violence. We also observed other features not previously described in this patient subgroup. Patients who started abusing alcohol in their teens were three times as likely to be depressed and four times as likely to have attempted suicide as patients with a later onset of alcohol abuse.

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