The death of British soul singer Amy Winehouse at the age of twenty-seven adds another name to the list of pop music luminaries who exited the big stage at that tender juncture in their life. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones – all led precipitous lifestyles that made them candidates for early self-destruction. The looming question is, did they have a fatal genetic seed within them just waiting to sprout, or did the excesses of the sex, money and drugs lifestyle that attends the rock and roll subculture do them in?
Recent research in addiction suggests that the younger you are when you start experimenting with drugs and alcohol (nicotine as well), the more susceptible you become to lifelong patterns of abuse. Evolutionarily speaking, younger members of our species grow lots of prefrontal cortex during the pre-teen years, but less so as they become adolescents and are impelled to leave the nest. Doing so involves risk-taking and impulsivity, thus the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision-making takes a backseat. It is sometimes a fatal neurological cycle.
Assuming someone does begin using alcohol at the age of thirteen, the chances of becoming an alcoholic skyrocket to 43%, whereas if they wait to start drinking just eight years, they only have a one in ten chance of succumbing to a similar fate. Ms. Winehouse and her fellow pop music prodigies had perhaps set themselves up early for the throes of addiction, then found themselves in a milieu where anything and everything goes, twenty-four/seven. That's the problem with being young, rich and famous: the brain will steer you where the body is unprepared to go.
Genes indeed play a powerful role in one's attraction to, and ability to resist risky behavior. Twin studies have shown that addictive personalities tend to cluster in certain families, while, contrarily, whole populations are genetically predisposed against such tendencies. Asians, for instance, have a deficient gene for an enzyme responsible for the breakdown of alcohol, resulting in a degree of nausea and toxicity that dissuades them from partaking at excessive levels. Not that there aren't alcoholics among them, just far fewer given their particular genetic makeup.
But let's not discount the environmental factors. According to a University of Utah study, "the biggest contributing factor to drug abuse risk is having friends who engage in the problem behavior." In the case of people like Winehouse and others in the rock and roll guild, early adopting of such self-medicating habits is reinforced by the mutual support of the group that joins in on the party. Miles Davis wanted to be able to hang with his mentor Charlie Parker, and thus started doing heroin at an early age. And of course the elder addict needs people around him to con and cajole so as to support his own habit. It is symbiosis at its deadliest best.
The real villain in Ms. Winehouse's sad and brief life is the scoundrel who introduced her to hard drugs in the first place, her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Currently in prison for burglary and firearms possession, it was this former video production assistant (read: loser) who started the whole fatal ball rolling by providing her with heroin and crack cocaine. Why she was susceptible to the charms of such a lowlife in the first place is a question for the ages. And that the combined energies of therapists and family couldn't save her is fair warning to the rest of us to watch our young ones with both eyes open. But for the grace of God go we all…..