Researchers at Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies have published the first known study linking the risk of drinking problems after college with similar problems in a student's extended family, not just parents or fathers. The study was published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — An extended family’s alcoholism — including first-, second-, and third-degree relatives — may be a better predictor of a college student’s risk of future alcoholism than the usual yardstick of parental alcohol abuse, according to a study by researchers at Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies.

Published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, this is the first published study of college students that looks beyond the parents’ — usually paternal — alcohol use.

Many students “mature out” of heavy drinking after college, but some develop alcohol-use disorders. Although alcohol education should begin in students much younger than college age, the researchers have said, this study provides a valuable tool to identify risk at a time when social drinking often ramps up in a young adult’s life.

“Our use of a density measure identified a large proportion of students, about 29 percent, who are at potentially greater risk for development of alcohol use disorders based on their report of alcoholism among first- and second-degree relatives,” said Christy Capone, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies and the study’s lead author.

“Ours is the first published study to examine this measure among college students,” Capone said. “Our other key finding was the relationship between an individual’s family history of alcoholism and other potential risk factors: personality factors, age of onset of drinking, and cigarette use.”

The study looked at 408 undergraduate students (293 females, 115 males) from a northeastern U.S. university who were asked to complete an anonymous survey for course credit during the 2005-06 academic year.

“In our study, approximately 44 percent of the at-risk participants would have been missed if a typical family-history measure had been used instead of the family-history density approach,” said John Hustad, a research associate at Brown.

Not everyone with density of familial alcoholism will develop a long-term alcohol problem, Capone said. “However, college students who are heavy drinkers and have a greater density of familial alcoholism are certainly at higher risk of continuing to drink in a problematic fashion after the college years.”

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. The co-author of the ACER paper, “Density of Familial Alcoholism and its Effects on Alcohol Use and Problems in College Students,” was Mark D. Wood of the Department of Psychology at the University of Rhode Island.