The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in the U.S. regulates the age at which individuals can legally purchase and possess alcohol in public. An MLDA of 21 has been linked to a number of benefits, including a lower risk for alcoholism in adulthood. However, no studies have examined linkages between exposure to MLDAs during young adulthood and mortality later in life. This study examined if young adults — college and non-college students — exposed to a permissive MLDA (younger than 21) had a higher risk of death from alcohol-related chronic diseases compared to those exposed to an MLDA of 21.
Researchers combined and analyzed data from 1990 — 2010 U.S. Multiple Cause of Death files as well as data on census and community populations. Individuals who turned 18 during the years from 1967-1990 were included, as this is the time period during which MLDA varied across states. Study authors also examined records on death from several alcohol-related chronic diseases such as liver disease and alcohol-related cancers.
Findings indicate that an MLDA of 21 seems to protect against risk of death from alcohol-related chronic disease across the lifespan, at least for those who have not attended college. Individuals who did report college attendance appeared to derive no benefits from the MLDA of 21. The authors speculate this may be due to higher levels of binge drinking on college campuses, a campus environment that insulates against policies aimed at curbing underage drinking, and a culture that promotes drinking to excess.