Does Early Life Stress Help Predict Young Adults’ Involvement in Drug Abuse?
Drug Use and Drug Abuse
Broadly speaking, drug use can refer to the intake of a legitimately prescribed medication, an illicitly used medication or an illegal drug that has no role in medical treatment. Drug abuse refers to the misuse of a prescribed medication, illicit medication or illegal drug. When illicit medications and illegal drugs are involved, drug use and drug abuse basically function as synonymous terms. In some cases, drug abuse rises to a level of medical seriousness that warrants diagnosis by a doctor. Under current terms established by the American Psychiatric Association, medically serious drug abuse qualifies as a form of a wide-ranging condition called substance use disorder. The same diagnosis applies to drug abusers who have developed physical dependence and other symptoms of drug addiction. Known risk factors for developing diagnosable problems with abuse or addiction include genetic predisposition, specific aspects of a person’s biology, environmental influences at various stages of life and the combined influence of genetics and environment on the normal course of early life development.
Stress can include anything from the relatively minor pressures of maintaining a productive daily routine to the severe pressures associated with exposure to certain traumatic, life-threatening events or situations. Since human beings have always been exposed to stress, the body has developed a number of built-in coping mechanisms, including the classic “fight-or-flight” response, which temporarily alters critical functions such as the heart rate and breathing rate in order to increase the odds of immediate survival in potentially lethal circumstances. When stress overwhelms any given person’s coping capacity, he or she can experience a range of damaging short- or long-term consequences, including increased susceptibility to infection, increased risks for developing diagnosable symptoms of certain forms of mental illness and increased risks for developing chronic health problems such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease.
Early Life Stress and Drug Abuse
In the study published in Addiction, researchers from the University of Georgia, Northwestern University and the University of Houston used a one-year examination of 456 African-American men to explore the impact of stress on drug use among young adults. All study participants were in their 19th year when the project began and lived outside of urban population centers. The researchers gathered information on these individuals’ level of involvement in drug use and relative willingness to delay short-term rewards in order to receive greater rewards in the future. In addition, they tested each participant’s levels of two hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which naturally rise in stressful circumstances.
After collating and analyzing the collected data, the researchers concluded that the study participants who had elevated levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine at age 19 were substantially more likely to have increased their level of drug use by age 20 than the participants without elevated levels of these stress hormones. They also concluded that those individuals with elevated stress hormone levels at age 19 were significantly more likely to prefer small, short-term rewards to larger, longer-term rewards. This is a crucial fact, since people with a marked preference for short-term rewards commonly display impulsive behaviors that increase their risks for substance use and problems with substance abuse.
In a second, overlapping study, the same team of researchers assessed the same group of participants’ level of exposure to two key early-life stressors—having poor parental support and having parents with mental health problems—before reaching adolescence. Half of the participants received a childhood intervention designed to offset the effects of these stressors. The researchers concluded that the individuals who did not receive the childhood intervention were the same individuals with heightened levels of stress hormones at age 19. They also concluded that the individuals who received the intervention had substantially lower levels of stress hormones at the same age, and also had smaller chances of increasing their potentially problematic involvement in drug abuse at age 20.