High-intensity alcohol use and young adult drinking patterns

What are common patterns of drinking from the last year of high school to the mid 20s? Research on developmental patterns of binge drinking (5+ drinks in a row) typically shows a large group of consistently light to moderate drinkers, a smaller group of chronic heavy users, and groups in which binge drinking either increases or decreases over time. Megan Patrick and colleagues used a measure of more intensive drinking, 10+ drinks in a row in the past 2 weeks, to track patterns of drinking during the first years of adulthood in a national US sample.



Four main patterns from age 18 to 25/26* were found:


-an estimated 16% were high-intensity drinkers (with high probability of 10+ drinking from age 19 through 25/26 and elevated probability at age 18)

-40% were persistent non-high-intensity drinkers (with high probability of past 30-day but no 10+ drinking from age 18 through 25/26)

-23% were legal non-high-intensity drinkers (with high probability of no past 30-day drinking until age 21 followed by drinking that did not reach high intensity)

– an estimated 21% were non-drinkers (the probability of no past 30-day alcohol use remaining high from age 18 through 25/26)


Only one group was characterized by high-intensity drinking; no other group showed high probabilities of 10+ drinking. Being male elevated the risk for membership in the high-intensity drinking class. Being white raised the risk of being in the persistent or high-intensity drinking class. Socioeconomic status and college plans did not seem to affect the risk of being in the high-intensity drinking group.


At age 18, members of the high-intensity class were over 3 times more likely to have had 10+ drinks in a row, compared to all 18-year-olds combined, and were very likely to have had alcohol in the month prior to the survey. High-intensity drinking tended to continue into young adulthood, past the years of known peak alcohol use at ages 21 and 22. Those who had no prior-month drinking in high school were unlikely to initiate high-intensity drinking after high school.


Read more about the methodology, repeated measures latent class analysis, at the Penn State Methodology Center.


Patterns of high-intensity drinking among young adults in the United States: A repeated measures latent class analysis was published in Addictive Behaviors in June 2017.


*The double age notation (25/26) stems from Monitoring the Future follow-up sequencing in which one half of a random sample of high school seniors is surveyed 1 year later (at modal age 19) and the other half 2 years later (at modal age 20). These half groups continue to be surveyed every two years.