According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, the earlier you start using drugs or alcohol, the more likely you are to develop an addiction.
Thankfully, research shows that if you wait until you’re 25 before initiating substance use, you’re home free — mostly.
The TEDS report
The Treatment Episode Data Set, or TEDS, is a national database that stores information about annual admissions to substance abuse treatment facilities. This data set includes information about when each patient started using drugs, which drugs they’ve used and whether or not they’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, among other demographic characteristics. By using this dataset, researchers were able to glean a number of conclusions about how age of first use influences addiction.
The researchers found that the largest group of patients (34.1 percent) started using substances from the ages of 15 to 17. The second largest group of patients (29.7 percent) started using substances from the ages of 12 to 14, and the third largest group of patients (23.4 percent) started using substances from the ages of 18 to 24. The smallest groups were patients who started using substances at the age of 11 or younger (10.2 percent) and patients who started using substances at the age of 25 or older (2.6 percent).
Another conclusion found in the TEDS report was that individuals who started using drugs earlier were more likely to abuse multiple substances. Of the people who started using substances at age 11 or younger, 37.1 percent abused three substances, 41.0 percent abused two substances and only 21.9 percent abused one substance. In contrast, only 7.2 percent of patients who started using substances at age 25 or older abused three substances, 23.2 percent abused two substances and a whopping 69.6 percent only abused one substance.
From these numbers, it seems clear that people who start using drugs and/or alcohol as an adolescent are more likely to later become addicts than people who start using drugs and/or alcohol once they’ve reached adulthood.
But is the story really that simple?
Which came first: mental illness or substance abuse?
According to the TEDS report, the people who started using drugs and alcohol earlier tended to have co-occurring mental disorders. Over one-third (38.6 percent) of the patients who started using substances at the age of 11 or younger had a mental illness, the largest portion of any other age group. This was followed by patients who started using substances from the ages of 12 to 14 (32.2 percent).
It’s possible that the reason why some people start using substances earlier is because they attempt to self-medicate their mental illness, not simply because they had been exposed to drug use or had experienced peer pressure. Then again, it’s also possible that individuals who have been using drugs for longer periods of time have altered their brain chemistry and may, therefore, be more predisposed to mental illness.
People who start using drugs later tend to be addicted to opioids
Unfortunately, people who start using substances at age 25 or older won’t necessarily avoid developing an addiction. The vast majority of individuals in this age category were addicted to opioids — specifically, 33.2 percent were addicted to prescription pain relievers and 35.3 percent were addicted to heroin. These rates of opioid addiction were higher than those in any other age category.
Since individuals in this particular category appear to be more resilient to addiction overall, the high levels of opioid addiction emphasize the addictive properties of these drugs. People who start using substances as adults should not be ignored when it comes to preventive, anti-drug measures, especially when it comes to opioids.
In the end, anyone can develop an addiction at any age. As always, it’s important to watch out for the signs of addiction and take care of your overall health.
At Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego, we understand it isn’t easy being a teenager. Unfortunately, mental illness, substance use, eating disorders and co-occurring disorders often pop up during these teenage years, making a challenging time even worse. We provide our adolescent patients with a quiet, relaxing retreat, free from the pressures and distractions of everyday life, as we offer evidence-based, customized treatment. For more information about our programs, please contact us at our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in Neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.