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Drunk teens become unhealthy adults

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Adolescents who take up drinking or drugs before they turn 15 have a significantly increased risk of poor health outcomes as adults, according to new research emerging from the University of Otago's Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study.

The research found that adolescents exposed to drugs and alcohol prior to this age were two to three times more likely as adults to become dependent on substances, contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs), drop out of school, have criminal records, or experience early pregnancies than those who did not use illicit substances at a young age.

The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, come out of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study at the University, which has followed 1000 Dunedin-born people since their birth in 1972/73.

Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study Director and paper co-author Professor Richie Poulton says that when early exposure was combined with child or adolescent behavioural problems, the future health risks increased.

"This research shows that prevention, or universal interventions, are required for all children, not only those entering early adolescence on an at-risk trajectory," Professor Poulton says.

Researchers assessed the behaviour of the Dunedin study members as children and teenagers, and their exposure to substances. Behavioural problems of the study members were recorded between ages 7 and 13, including fighting, bullying, and telling lies.

Frequency of exposure to drugs and alcohol was examined at ages 13 and 15. At age 32, Study members were asked about various aspects of their health, including substance abuse disorders, STIs, number of criminal convictions and, for female study members, pregnancies before the age of 21.

The researchers found that while alcohol was the most commonly used substance among teenagers, risk of poor adult health was greater for teenagers using a variety of substances.

They also discovered that 50 per cent of the study members exposed to substances before the age of 15 had no prior history of negative behavioural problems. For those adults who had negative behavioural problems as children, early exposure to drugs and alcohol greatly exacerbated their risk for developing substance abuse, school failure and criminal convictions.

Lead author Dr. Candice Odgers, a psychologist from the University of California at Irvine, says "the message from this research is that early substance use leads to significant problems in adolescents' future lives; in other words that drugs are bad for kids.

"This goes against the alternative message that it's the bad kids doing drugs, or that young adolescents with history of problems are just more likely to use drugs early and experience poor outcomes. We found that even adolescents with no prior history of behavioural problems or family history of substance abuse problems were at risk for poor health outcomes if they used substances prior to age 15."

(Source: University of Otago: Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study: November 2008.)

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Posted On: 5 November, 2008
Modified On: 16 January, 2014


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