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Youth With ADHD History Initiate Alcohol, Drug Use at Earlier Age

Teenagers and younger children affected by ADHD begin substance use at a significantly earlier age than their counterparts unaffected by the condition, researchers from the University of Florida report in a recent study.Researchers and doctors are well aware that people affected by attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in early childhood or adolescence have increased chances of developing diagnosable problems with substance abuse or substance addiction at some later point in life. In a study published in December 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, University of Florida researchers looked at the impact that ADHD in childhood/adolescence has on the age at which a teen or adult first initiates substance intake. The researchers also looked at the impact that ADHD in earlier life has on the dangerousness of any given teen or young adult’s substance-related behaviors.


Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is a common and convenient catchall term that doctors use to describe a diverse and partially overlapping array of problems that typically arise in early childhood. One grouping of ADHD symptoms centers on problems associated with unusually high-strung or hyperactive behavior and/or with an inability to exercise age-appropriate control over impulsive urges. Mental health professionals refer to this form of the disorder as predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD. Another grouping of symptoms centers on problems associated with the lack of an age-appropriate ability to maintain focus or pay attention. Experts in the field refer to this form of the ADHD as predominantly inattentive ADHD. A third form of the disorder, called combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive ADHD, has shared features of the two other types of attention-deficit hyperactive disorder.

No one knows all of the factors that can contribute to any given case of ADHD. However, recognized contributors include genetic predisposition, exposure to a range of environmental toxins (including prenatal exposure to nicotine/tobacco or alcohol) and—in a relatively small number of cases—exposure to some form of brain trauma. By the time they reach adolescence, about 9 percent of all Americans have some form of ADHD, the National Institute of Mental Health reports. Statistically speaking, boys have much higher risks for the disorder than girls.

ADHD and Substance Problems

Teenagers and younger children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have substantially increased odds of eventually developing a number of diagnosable problems with substance abuse/addiction. Examples of these problems include alcohol use disorder (an increased likelihood of almost 100 percent), cocaine-based stimulant use disorder (also an increased likelihood of almost 100 percent), cannabis use disorder (an increased likelihood of roughly 50 percent) and tobacco use disorder (an increased likelihood of almost 200 percent). In 2014, a review board from the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that ADHD is “inextricably intertwined” with diagnosable substance problems.

Impact on Age at First Substance Use

In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, the University of Florida researchers used data gathered from 941 adults in the Baltimore area to estimate the impact that adolescent/early childhood ADHD has on the age at which adults and teenagers begin their involvement in substance use. The researchers used data from the same group of adults to estimate ADHD’s impact on the seriousness of substance users’ dangerous behavior. All of the participants in the study were involved in the consumption of substances such as alcohol, marijuana/cannabis, nicotine/tobacco and cocaine. In addition, all of the participants came from either a Caucasian or African-American racial/ethnic background.

Roughly 13 percent of the study participants had diagnosable ADHD during childhood/adolescence. When the researchers compared the drug use histories of these individuals to the approximately 87 percent of participants unaffected by early-life ADHD, they concluded that past experience of the symptoms of the disorder is associated with a significant reduction in the age at which any given young adult or teenager will take a first drink of alcohol or begin the use of cocaine, nicotine/tobacco or marijuana/cannabis. In addition, the researchers concluded that experience with childhood/adolescent ADHD increases the likelihood that a teenager or adult will use injection drugs and share needles with others while engaging in this notoriously dangerous form of substance intake.

The study’s authors believe that their findings generally support the existing theory that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder essentially acts as a gateway to future involvement in substance use. They also believe their findings indicate that people with a history of the disorder experience a substantially more rapid transition into substance intake than their counterparts unaffected by ADHD in earlier life.

Posted on October 8th, 2015
Posted in Addiction

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