Children who have high levels of verbal development may be at higher risk for frequent drinking and intoxication in adolescence and young adulthood, according to a study published in the Sept. 13 online edition of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Researchers in Finland followed 3000 healthy identical and fraternal twins when they were children, teens and young adults, focusing on the twins who had significant differences in verbal development as children and who also had varied drinking habits as adults.
“We wanted to see whether already childhood differences in language outcomes, such as age of speaking words, are predictive of drinking behaviors, and if so, whether better verbal development predicts less or more drinking,” said corresponding author of the study Antti Latvala, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, in a journal news release.
Parents participating in the study provided information about when their twins started talking, learned to read and used expressive language skills. Their twins were surveyed about drinking, intoxication an alcohol-related problems when they were teens and young adults.
Based on study data, the researchers found that the differences in the twins' language development in early childhood were a predictor of alcohol-use behaviors in adolescence and up to adulthood.
“Specifically,” said Latvala, “we found that better childhood development – as indicated by an earlier age of speaking words, learning to read earlier, or having better expressive language skills at school age – was often predictive of a higher likelihood of engaging in more frequent drinking and intoxicating across adolescence.”
The study also showed that twins who spoke first were more likely to be drinking by the age of 18 and were four times as likely to get drunk once a month.
Why the difference in drinking behaviors between the early talkers and their less verbal twins?
Researchers found that the more verbally advanced twins were more likely to have friends who drink in adolescence than their co-twins, and that they had the temperament trait for “sensation-seeking.”
“People have this impression that intelligence is somehow related to being introverted or bookwormish,” Latvala told TIME. “But if you look at these large studies they definitely find this association with sensation-seeking and seeking different kinds of experiences. [They’re] trying to learn new things. It could be related to the nature of intelligence.”
Noting that experimenting with alcohol is not without risks, Latvala pointed out that the good news is that most highly verbal kids do not go on to abuse alcohol and drugs.
“Even though an adolescent with good language and cognitive skills may experiment with drinking earlier than his/her less advanced peers, better verbal and intellectual abilities have [also] been found to be protective against developing severe problems with alcohol and other substances in adulthood.”