Friday 17 October 2008
Teen drinking increases risk for poor adult health
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 2-3 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 this week 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
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.”
The work for this study was funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, the United States National Institute
for Mental Health, the United Kingdom Medical Research Council, and the William T Grant Foundation. It was carried out
by researchers from the University of California at Irvine, Duke University, King’s College London and the University of