Study of the Day: Drinking Age of 21 Saves 1,200 Women a Year

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New research suggests that the 1984 federal act to increase the drinking age from 18 prevents hundreds of suicides and homicides

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PROBLEM: A federal act established 21 as the minimum legal drinking age in 1984. Since then, several studies have seemingly validated this move by linking the previous drinking age of 18 to higher rates of suicides, homicides, DUI accidents, and alcohol- and drug-use disorders during the years when those restrictions were in effect. It's unclear, however, if these negative consequences endure.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by Washington University epidemiologist Richard A. Grucza analyzed data on living populations from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey as well as records from the U.S. Multiple Cause of Death files, 1990-2004. The combined files contained information on more than 200,000 suicides and 130,000 homicides for people who turned 18 between 1967 and 1989, the years that legal drinking ages were in flux.

RESULTS: There seemed to be no association between minimum drinking age and homicide or suicide. However, when gender-specific policies were singled out, the authors saw that women exposed to laws that enable drinking as early as 18 years of age are at elevated risk for both suicide and homicide. The authors estimate that the current national drinking age of 21 may be preventing around 600 suicides and 600 homicides a year.

CONCLUSION: Higher minimum drinking ages may lower rates of suicides and homicides among women later in life.

IMPLICATION: This study bolsters the adoption of the legal drinking age of 21. As Grucza puts it in a statement, " The finding that it may also save lives and reduce problems during adulthood shows the importance of maintaining these laws, and developing other interventions aimed toward reducing drinking among young people."

SOURCE: The full study, "The Legacy of Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law Changes: Long-Term Effects on Suicide and Homicide Deaths Among Women," is published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Image: Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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