Smarter Kids Are Smart Enough to Avoid Alcohol and Drugs, Right?
Maybe not. The latest study of twins shows that early bloomers may become heavier drinkers who start chugging earlier in life.
The research is part of an emerging but counterintuitive body of work that suggests kids who develop language and intellectual skills earlier are more likely to drink and take other drugs than their less intelligent peers. In 2011, for example, British researchers found that women who were in the top third of the IQ range when tested in elementary school were more than twice as likely as those scoring in the bottom third to have used marijuana or cocaine by age 30; for men, the top ranked boys were almost 50% more likely to have taken amphetamine and 65% more likely to have used ecstasy (MDMA) by adulthood.
For decades, scientists had documented that those with lower IQ and less education were more likely to become addicted to alcohol or other drugs, probably because lower levels of education and lower IQ are associated with the damaging effects of poverty and because having less intelligence offers fewer mental resources to allow users to moderate and avoid problems.
The latest data, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, doesn’t contradict those findings. Drug use is not the same as drug addiction— and a great deal of earlier research shows that higher intelligence is a protective factor against alcoholism and addictions, even though smarter people are more likely to drink or try drugs.
The researchers followed 3000 healthy identical or fraternal twins in Finland, focusing on the group who had significant differences in verbal development as children and who also turned out to have varied drinking behavior as adults. The twin who spoke her first words earlier or began reading earlier was nearly twice as likely as her co-twin to be drinking more at age 18. And twins who spoke first were four times as likely to get drunk once a month or more often than their later-speaking twins, who either hadn’t been drunk at all or did so less than once a month. Overwhelmingly, this drinking was not out of control and did not qualify them for a diagnosis of having an alcohol disorder.
“Social drinking in many countries and non-problematic drinking is more frequent and common among people with higher education,” says Antti Latvala, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland and lead author of the study. Why? What protects them from sliding into addiction?
Intelligence can serve as a vehicle for moderation when it comes to alcohol or drug use — the more educated people are, the more they internalize and appreciate the dangers and risks of overindulging. The higher education that’s correlated with greater intellect also puts more at stake for those who indulge in alcohol or drug abuse.
Intelligence can also spur more curiosity and openness to new experiences. And that includes experimenting with alcohol and drugs. “People have this impression that intelligence is somehow related to being introverted and bookwormish,” says Latvala, “But if you look at these large studies they definitely find this association with sensation-seeking and seeking different kind of experiences. [They’re] trying to learn new things It could be related to the nature of intelligence.” Such experimentation doesn’t always lead to addiction or problematic behavior because this type of exposure often involves a few experiences before the person moves on to the next novelty.
Verbal intelligence may also often allow kids to better negotiate the social world, and since most social teenagers in Western societies drink, being social inevitably exposes them to alcohol. The study found that the more verbally skilled twins did have more friends who drank than their co-twins, so the connection might be reinforced culturally as well.
Although the study did not find that the early exposure to alcohol and drugs made the smarter twins more vulnerable to addiction, these twins weren’t entirely safe from the harms — including overdoses, drunk driving, sexual assaults and injuries — that can result from drinking or abusing drugs. Being smart doesn’t mean you are immune from drug-related dangers.