Researchers from the University of Bordeaux, France, found that American teens start experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a much younger and more vulnerable age than previously thought.

The study examined the prevalence, age at onset and sociodemographic factors that relate to alcohol and illicit drug use and abuse by American adolescents. It included a nationally representative sample of 10,123 teens between the ages of 13 and 18:

“Their study results indicate that by late adolescence, 78.2 percent of teenagers reported having consumed alcohol; 47.1 percent having reached regular drinking levels of at least 12 drinks within a year; and 15.1 percent having met the criteria for lifetime abuse. The opportunity to use illicit drugs was reported by 81.4 percent of the oldest adolescents, drug use by 42.5 percent and drug abuse by 16.4 percent. … The median age at onset was 14 years old for regular alcohol use or abuse with or without dependence; 14 years old for drug abuse with dependence; and 15 years old for drug abuse without dependence. The probability of each stage of alcohol and drug use increased with age, but the rates were almost always lowest for black and other racial/ethnic groups compared with white or Hispanic adolescents.”

The authors write that this initial onset is at an important time in the adolescents’ brain development and that alcohol and drugs use patterns in adolescence are increasingly seen as indicators of later substance abuse.

“Because the early onset of substance use is a significant predictor of substance use behavior and disorders in a lifespan, the public health implications of the current findings are far reaching,” the authors note. “The prevention of both alcohol and illicit drug abuse requires strategies that target early adolescence and take into account the highly differential influence that population-based factors may exert by stage of substance use.”

Source: JAMA

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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