Public Release: 

Childhood abuse related to alcoholism in Native Americans

Center for Advancing Health

New research on seven Native American tribes suggests that tribe members who were abused or sent away to school as children are more likely to have problems with alcohol later in life.

Men were almost twice as likely to abuse alcohol if they had experienced a combination of physical and sexual abuse as children. Women were almost twice as likely to have alcohol problems if they had been sexually abused and attended boarding school.

The study, published in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is the first to look at adverse childhood environments as a risk factor for alcoholism across a large number of tribes, say Mary P. Koss, Ph.D., and Nicole Yuan, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona and colleagues.

Alcohol abuse exacts a terrible toll among several Native American communities, making it important to understand factors that might influence alcohol abuse among the population, according to the researchers.

With the help of Native American interviewers and the cooperation of leaders of tribes in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Oregon, Maine and Arizona, the researchers collected information on adverse childhood experiences ranging from emotional neglect to physical abuse to adoption and boarding school attendance and drinking habits from 1,660 people. The participants were interviewed by a person from within their tribe or someone from another tribe, depending on tribal leaders' preferences.

The percentage of alcohol dependent tribe members varied significantly among tribes, from only one to two percent in one tribe to 56 percent of the men in another. Across all the tribes, 30 percent of the men and 18 percent of the women were diagnosed with some form of alcohol dependence. More than half said that they had at least one parent with alcohol problems.

More than two-thirds of respondents reported at least one kind of adverse childhood experience. Physical neglect and abuse were among the most widely reported childhood experiences, while emotional neglect was the least prevalent.

Koss and colleagues also found that women who knew more about their tribal languages had a higher risk of alcohol problems, while women who lived close to their tribal communities were less likely to abuse alcohol. However, these same influences did not significantly affect men's likelihood of alcohol problems.

"The women's language finding is hard to interpret because with our data, we can't say which came first, alcohol problems or language skills. It could be that the language facility was learned in tribal sobriety programs and was not a precursor to alcoholism," Koss says.

Based on their findings, the researchers highlight the need to develop social programs for reservation-based families to lessen exposure to adult drinking and to establish intensive preventive education on childhood sexual abuse.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.



FOR MORE INFORMATION Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Mary Koss at 520-626-9502 or
American Journal of Preventive Medicine: Contact the editorial office at (619) 594-7344.

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