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Adult health risk increases in adolescents who drink

OCTOBER 17, 2008

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s have found an increased health risk in later life amongst adolescents who drink or use drugs before the age of 15.  The study has been published this week in the October issue of the US journal Psychological Science.

Dr Candice Odgers, now at the University of California-Irvine, carried out this research with other colleagues whilst at King’s College London.   This research study was funded in the main by the Medical Research Council in the UK and is a collaboration between researchers at the King’s College London, University of California-Irvine and Duke Universities in the US and the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. 

The research reports on a 30-year follow-up study providing evidence that young people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs prior to age 15 have an increased risk of poor health 20 years later, regardless of their history of childhood behavioral problems. Early alcohol or drug use in this study was defined through behaviors such as using substances on multiple occasions, buying substances, or using substances at school prior to age 15.

Over 1,000 three year old children were enrolled in this study and numerous follow-up assessments were made over the next 30 years. This included teachers reporting on behavioural problems (including fighting, bullying and telling lies) amongst the children between ages of 7 and 13. Then, once the study members were 13 and 15 years old, they were asked about their frequency of exposure to drugs and alcohol during the past year; this enabled the researchers to identify those adolescents who were early users of illicit substances.

When the study members were 32 years old, researchers assessed if they had any substance abuse disorders, if they had tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), the number of criminal convictions that they had and also in females, they examined if they had early pregnancies (i.e. before the age of 21).  

The results of the current study found that adolescents who were exposed to drugs and alcohol before the age of 15 were 2 to 3 times more likely to become dependent on substances, contract STDs, drop out of school and have criminal records. In addition, teen pregnancy rates were higher among females who used drugs and alcohol before the age of 15 compared to those who did not use illicit substances at a young age. 

Lead researcher Candice Odgers comments: “Findings from this study are consistent with the message that early substance use leads to significant problems in adolescents’ future lives versus the alternative message that young adolescents with history of problems are just more likely to use drugs early and experience poor outcomes.”

She continues: “Even adolescents with no prior history of behavioral problems or family history of substance abuse problems were at risk for poor health outcomes if they used substances prior to age 15. Universal interventions are required to ensure that all children—not only those entering early adolescence on an at-risk trajectory—receive an adequate dose of prevention.”

These findings are congruent with a growing body of evidence that early adolescence may be a sensitive time for exposure to alcohol and other drugs.

Notes to Editors
1.  A full copy of the paper: ‘Is it important to prevent early exposure to drugs and alcohol among adolescents?’  is available from October issue of the US journal  Psychological Science.  The paper’s authors are:  Candice L. Odgers, Ph.D.; Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D.; Daniel S. Nagin, Ph.D.;   Alex R. Piquero, Ph.D; Wendy S. Slutske, Ph.D; Barry J. Milne, MSc; Nigel Dickson, FRACP.;   Richie Poulton, Ph.D.; Terrie, E. Moffitt, Ph.D.

2.  The contributing institutions were:  the MRC Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, King’s College London together with the Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California- Irvine, Irvine, CA, USA; Departments of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA; Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

3.   The study was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and the U.K. Medical Research Council, as well as the William T. Grant Foundation and Health Research Council of New Zealand.

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