A prospective longitudinal model predicting early adult alcohol problems: Evidence for a robust externalizing pathway.


Background: Risk factors for alcohol problems (AP) include biological and environmental factors that are relevant across development. The pathways through which these factors are related, and how they lead to AP, are optimally considered in the context of a comprehensive developmental model. Method: Using data from a prospectively assessed, population-based UK cohort, we constructed a structural equation model that integrated risk factors reflecting individual, family and peer/community-level constructs across childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. These variables were used to predict AP at the age of 20 years. Results: The final model explained over 30% of the variance in liability to age 20 years AP. Most prominent in the model was an externalizing pathway to AP, with conduct problems, sensation seeking, AP at age 17.5 years and illicit substance use acting as robust predictors. In conjunction with these individual-level risk factors, familial AP, peer relationships and low parental monitoring also predicted AP. Internalizing problems were less consistently associated with AP. Some risk factors previously identified were not associated with AP in the context of this comprehensive model. Conclusions: The etiology of young adult AP is complex, influenced by risk factors that manifest across development. The most prominent pathway to AP is via externalizing and related behaviors. These findings underscore the importance of jointly assessing both biologically influenced and environmental risk factors for AP in a developmental context.