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Oct. 16: Early Exposure to Drugs, Alcohol Creates Lifetime of Health Risk, Says Carnegie Mellon Professor


Ken Walters                        

Early Exposure to Drugs, Alcohol
Creates Lifetime of Health Risk

Carnegie Mellon Professor Co-Authors New Study On Teen Drinking, Drug Abuse

Dan NaginPITTSBURGH—People who begin drinking and using marijuana regularly prior to their 15th birthday face a higher risk of early pregnancy, school failure, substance dependence, sexually-transmitted disease and criminal convictions that lasts into their 30s, according to a study co-authored by Carnegie Mellon University Professor Dan Nagin.
Published online by the journal Psychological Science, the study sorts out the difficult question of whether these adverse outcomes are restricted only to drug-abusing adolescents who were already troubled or whether they also occur to drug-abusing teens who weren't troubled.
The answer is that both types of adolescents are affected, according to Nagin, the Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics. He was part of a team of researchers from the U.S., Britain and New Zealand that analyzed data tracking of the health of nearly 1,000 New Zealand residents from birth through age 32.
Half of the study subjects who were using alcohol and marijuana regularly before age 15 were already troubled kids who came from an abusive, criminal or substance-abusing household and had behavior problems as children. The other half, who were from more stable backgrounds without histories of behavior problems, also ended up in poorer health in their 30s.
"These findings challenge certain perceptions regarding teens and drug and alcohol use," Nagin said.  "For example, the idea that we shouldn't be concerned when teens abuse drugs and alcohol, because the kids are just experimenting. It's clear from this data that early exposure to drugs and alcohol can make even a good kid veer off on a bad trajectory."
The study found the "good kids," who did not have behavior problems as children and didn't have any family risk factors, but began using drugs and alcohol before age 15, ended up being 3.6 times more likely to be dependent on substances at age 32. They were also more likely to have a criminal conviction and a herpes infection.
"This also challenges the conventional wisdom that kids who abuse drugs and alcohol were already troubled before they started using," Nagin noted, adding that whether already troubled or not, adolescents who regularly used drugs and alcohol all had poorer health as adults.
The study was not concerned with a teen who tries alcohol a couple of times or who occasionally smokes marijuana at a party, he said, adding that its focus was on those who used drugs and alcohol regularly before age 15.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the U.K. Medical Research Council, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Healthy Research Council of New Zealand and a National Institute on Drug Abuse grant to the Duke University Transdisciplinary Prevention Research Center.
Other authors of the Psychological Science paper include: Avshalom Caspi and Terri Moffitt, Duke University; Candice Odgers, University of California-Irvine; Barry Milne, King's College, London; Alex Piquero, University of Maryland, College Park; Wendy Slutske, University of Missouri-Columbia; and Nigel Dickson and Richie Poulton, University of Otago in New Zealand.

Pictured above is Dan Nagin, the Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics.