Early Marriage Exacerbates Risk of Alcohol Use Among People with Higher Genetic Predisposition
Mon, August 15, 2022

Early Marriage Exacerbates Risk of Alcohol Use Among People with Higher Genetic Predisposition


Getting married between the ages of 22 and 25 seems to be the sweet spot when it comes to having a happy union. The couple’s health is in good shape, which also means higher chances of safer pregnancy, and they can develop and grow together. However, a new study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) researchers revealed that early marriage seemed to exacerbate the risk of alcohol use among people with a higher genetic predisposition.

Genetic predisposition to a disease

Genetic predisposition, sometimes referred to as genetic susceptibility, is an increased likelihood of developing a certain disease based on a person’s genetic makeup. It results from genetic variations that are usually inherited from a parent. Although genetic changes do not directly cause the disease, it contributes to the development of a disease. Changes in genes may underlie susceptibility to many common diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, and mental illness.

Previous studies found that marriage moderates genetic influences on alcohol outcomes and protects an individual against risky alcohol use but VCU researchers said that these studies generally focus on older adults. Their study covered 937 young adults, with 53.25% being female. They found that early marriage, wherein both spouses are 21 years old or below, may lead to unsafe drinking behavior by people who have a higher genetic risk.

Co-author Rebecca Smith from the College of Humanities and Sciences’ Department of Psychology said that marrying at an early age does not have the same protective benefit as lessening the genetic predispositions observed for late marriage.



The marital status associated with heavy episodic drinking (HED)

Smith and colleagues said that among those who married young, individuals with higher polygenic risk scores (PRS) reported more HED. In genetics, a polygenic risk score is a number based on variation in multiple genetic loci and their associated weights. It indicates how a person’s risk compares to others with a different genetic constitution.

Smith added that the findings are important as they show how protective and risk factors may intersect in various ways and at different points in a lifespan. Typically, marriage is considered a protective factor against poor physical and mental health outcomes but the VCU finding shows that it also increases the risk of HED among those with a high genetic predisposition for alcohol use. The co-author also highlighted that when they stepped back to consider what is known about developmental and development psychology, their results made sense.

Consequence when a traditional life event happens later or earlier

Traditional life events, including marriage and parenthood, usually happen during certain periods in one’s life. When those events occur later in life or earlier than typical, they may not become as protective. People who marry at a young age experience consequences that are negative or they face more challenges, such as substance use and mental health problems compared to those who marry later in adulthood. The authors said that their findings apply in a larger context.

As people who marry young may not be the best influences on one another, it can develop an environment that exacerbates risk factors, including genetic predispositions, that contribute to alcohol use, according to VCU News.

The team collaborated with researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine, University of Iowa, Washington University, Pusan National University, Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

The average age at marriage, by country

Median marriage ages vary widely across the globe with various underlying reasons. The United Nations data shows that the youngest to get married are in Niger at almost 21 years old while the oldest is in Bulgaria at 34.

Other countries with the youngest average age at marriage are Mozambique (21.1), Malawi (22.5), Honduras (22.7), Burkina Faso (23.2), Ecuador (23.4), and Zimbabwe (23.6). On the other hand, countries with the oldest average age at marriage after Bulgaria are Hungary (34.0), Italy (33.8), Czech Republic (33.6), Netherlands (33.4), Norway (33.1), France (32.9), Germany (32.8), Denmark (32.8), and Slovakia (32.3).

In an analysis conducted by international news organization Quartz, it found that marriage is highly connected with wealth. People who live in poorer countries, like Laos and Malawi, tend to get married earlier than in richer countries, like Singapore and Norway. Furthermore, the population tends to marry later as the country gets richer. For instance, the average marriage age in China was 24 for men and 22 for women in 1990. In 2016, the average marriage age in China become 27 for men and 25 for women. It was a year when the country experienced rapid economic growth. This does not mean, though, that economics explains everything. Aside from income, the share of people who live in cities and the educational level of individuals are also significant determinants of marriage age. Other differences are a matter of history and local culture.



Reasons to marry

In the US, nine in ten Americans (88%) consider love as a very important reason to get married, followed by making a lifelong commitment (81%) and companionship (76%), according to the Pew Research Center.

Viewed as an important factor for men to be a good partner or husband is being a good financial provider. About 71% or seven in ten adults said it is very important for a man to support a family financially while only 32% said the same for a woman to be a good partner or wife. As for the important part of marriage or what helps people stay married, married adults said it is having shared interests (64%), having a satisfying sexual relationship (61%), sharing household chores (56%), shared religious beliefs (47%), having children (43%), having an adequate income (42%), and agreement on politics (16%).

The number of US adults cohabiting or living with an unmarried partner is also on the rise. The number reached about 18 million in 2016, an increase of 29% since 2007. About 50% of cohabiters are younger than 35 but cohabitation rises most quickly among US adults ages 50 and older. Large majorities of Millennials, Generation Zers, Baby Boomers, and Generation Xers say cohabitation doesn’t make a difference in society. Remarriage is also on the rise. Four in ten new marriages involve remarriage.

Alcohol use disorder and heavy drinking are culprits for lower overall satisfaction in marriages, particularly when the husband is the problem drinker. Alcoholism is also found to be a factor in domestic violence. The VCU study highlights when marriage can become a protective and risk factor in a lifespan.