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Adolescents may develop substance misuse disorders faster than young adults: study

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Bethesda, MD — Individuals who first try cannabis or misuse prescription opioids before age 18 may develop a substance misuse/use disorder more quickly than those introduced to them as young adults, according to a recent study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse – part of the National Institutes of Health.

Using 2015-2018 data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, researchers looked at the prevalence of adolescents (ages 12-17) and young adults (18-25) who had a substance use disorder in the past year at various intervals since they first used or misused one of nine different drugs, including prescription medications (including opioids) and cannabis.

Findings show that the prevalence of past-year cannabis use disorder and past-year opioid misuse disorder were both greater for adolescents than young adults at each time frame since first use. For instance, 10.7% of adolescents developed a cannabis use disorder within one year compared with 6.4% of young adults. With regard to opioids, 11.2% of adolescents developed a misuse disorder within one year of initial misuse compared with 6.9% of young adults.


“We know that young people are more vulnerable to developing substance use disorders, but knowledge is limited on how the prevalence of specific substance use disorders varies by time since first substance use or misuse among adolescents and young adults in the United States,” Nora Volkow, NIDA director and lead study author, said in a press release. “Although not everyone who uses a drug will develop addiction, adolescents may develop addiction to substances faster than young adults. This study provides further evidence that delaying substance exposure until the brain is more fully developed may lower risk for developing a substance use disorder.”

Emily Einstein, study co-author and chief of NIDA’s science policy branch, added that brain development continues into a person’s 20s, making the age of drug initiation a vital risk factor for developing a substance use/misuse disorder.

“Offering timely treatment and support to young people who need it must be a public health priority,” Einstein said in the release.

The study was published online March 29 in JAMA Pediatrics.

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