Fetal Alcohol Effects in Alcoholic Veteran Patients

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Fetal alcohol syndrome is often associated with severe physical and neuropsychiatric maldevelopment. On the other hand, some offspring of women who drank during pregnancy appear to be affected in minimal ways and function relatively well within society. We questioned whether this effect of prenatal alcohol in the adult is generally minimal. To bear on this, we determined whether we could distinguish alcohol-exposed from nonexposed individuals in a population of male veterans, selected because of both their accepted level of function within society (e.g., honorable discharge from the military) and their admission to an alcohol treatment unit (thus, a greater likelihood of parental alcoholism, because of its familial aggregation). Consecutively admitted alcoholics (cases; n = 77) with likely maternal alcohol ingestion during their pregnancy or the first 10 years of life were matched with alcoholics with no maternal alcohol exposure during these periods (controls; n = 161). Each subject completed questionnaires regarding personal birthweight, alcohol, drug, educational and work histories, and family (including parental) alcohol and drug histories. We measured height, weight, and head circumference; checked for facial and hand anomalies; and took a frontal facial photograph, from which measurements of features were made. Data were analyzed by univariate statistics and stepwise logistic regression. No case had bona fide fetal alcohol syndrome. With univariate statistical analyses, the cases differed from the controls in 10 variables, including duration of drinking, width of alae nasae, being hyperactive or having a short attention span, and being small at birth. By stepwise logistic regression, the variables marital status, small size at birth, duration of drinking, and the presence of a smooth philtrum were marginally (the first two) or definitely (the last two) significant predictors of case status. Analysis of only the 37 cases in whom maternal prenatal drinking was the most likely yielded a marginal association for small size at birth (odds ratio = 3.1, p = 0.08) and a significant association for the presence of a smooth philtrum (odds ratio = 11.9, p = 0.005). Predictability was poor in all regression models. Based on the presence of this single physical finding (smooth philtrum), we estimate that the prevalence of manifestations of fetal alcohol exposure (fetal alcohol effects) is 6 to 13% in adult male veteran children (not necessarily nonveteran offspring) of women who drank alcohol during pregnancy. Thus, in our study of adult veterans, most individuals who were born to women who drank during pregnancy could not be differentiated from normal individuals, and those who were affected were distinguished by a single, nonspecific physical finding.

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