The average age at which teens and young adults start using drugs has been rising nationwide, said a Spokane researcher.
Examining data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the recent study found the average age of first drug use rose between 2004 and 2017 for a majority of 18 drugs reviewed, including alcohol and tobacco.
In some categories, the age of first use increased by at least one year older, which is statistically significant, said lead author Karl Alcover, a postdoctoral research associate in Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. JAMA Pediatrics published the study March 2.
“This is great news because delaying drug use prevents early exposure, which is associated with a variety of negative health consequences, including increased risk of drug use disorder and long-term impairments such as depression,” Alcover said.
However, the survey information doesn’t include data on vaping, which is on the rise, he said.
The study found the average age at which young people first consumed alcohol or smoked cigarettes rose from 16 in 2004 to 17 in 2017.
Those who reported using heroin or cocaine for the first time had an average age of just over 17 in 2004, which rose to about 18 for heroin and close to 19 for cocaine by 2017.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health is an annual survey that looks at drug use in a representative sample of U.S. residents ages 12 and older.
It included data on 84,317 respondents between the ages of 12 and 21 who were surveyed between 2004 and 2017 and had reported first-time drug use in the previous 12 months.
Looking at year-to-year trends, researchers found the average age at first use had increased for 12 out of 18 drugs, including alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy, hallucinogens, heroin, inhalants, LSD, marijuana, stimulants and tobacco products such as cigars, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
For the other six drugs – crack cocaine, methamphetamines, opioids, PCP, sedatives and tranquilizers – they found no statistically significant changes in the age at first use.
The average age of first use of LSD increased significantly through 2014 and subsequently declined but still showed an overall increase over the entire timeframe studied.
The earliest average age of first drug use across the study timeframe was 15.4 for inhalants, and the latest average age was 18 for cocaine and crack cocaine.
“Our study shows that since 2004, fewer individuals started using drugs at age 15 and younger, which is what we would typically consider as early onset drug use,” Alcover said. “These promising trends may serve as early evidence that prevention strategies – especially those focused on teens and young adults – are working.”
Alcover said the next step is to investigate what drives the trends seen in this study. The success of prevention efforts is one possible explanation, but it also could be young people’s preferences have switched to new options such as e-cigarettes.
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