College students on their own for the first time often experiment with alcohol, with many experimentations involving binge drinking. While the federal drinking age is 21, students under the age of 21 are often served alcohol at private, off-campus parties.
A study conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine, located in St. Louis, provides evidence that may lend support to the fight to keep the drinking age at 21. Led by Richard A. Grucza and colleagues, the study found that females who lived in a time and place where the drinking age was 18 were at a higher risk for suicide and homicide, even into adulthood.
When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, there was a variation among states for the legal drinking age. Because of fluctuations in state laws before a federal law making 21 the legal drinking age, Grucza and his research team have been able to study the long-term effects on the population. Grucza is an epidemiologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at WashU.
The researchers examined death records from the federal government in addition to census records and responses to the American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau. The team identified over 200,000 cases of suicide and 130,000 cases of homicide in which the person had turned 18 during the years 1967 to 1989, which were years in which the drinking age was frequently changing.
The researchers were surprised to see that the analysis showed that there was a higher risk of homicide and suicide for the population that resided in states allowing drinking for those under the age of 21, but only for women. The findings, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, show that women had a 15 percent increased risk of homicide and a 12 percent increased risk of suicide if they lived in a state with lower age requirements for drinking.
The study authors were not able to offer an explanation for the gender difference, but pointed out that homicide and suicide tend to occur in different circumstances for men and women. For instance, said Grucza in an interview with ABCNews.com, female victims of homicide usually know their attacker, but that is not necessarily true for men.
When it comes to suicide, women attempt suicide more frequently than men, but men are more often successful. But, Grucza explains, the addition of alcohol to a situation may make it more likely that the attempt will result in death.
Grucza and his team estimate that by using 2007 numbers of 3,600 suicides recorded and 2,700 homicides for women born since 1960, maintaining a drinking age of 21 may prevent deaths by suicide by 600 and homicides by 600 each year.