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A Sobering Story: Early substance use increases risks

by on April 20, 2014 1:59 AM

Genetics are a powerful factor in addiction, but so is the age at which substance use begins. The earlier that point occurs, specialists say, the more likely it is a person will progress to more serious abuse.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that is so because adolescence and early adulthood are a critical time in brain development. In the lion’s share of cases — 96.5 percent, in fact — people who have an addiction were abusing substances before the age of 21, according to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

“Because the parts of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, emotion and impulse control are not fully developed until early adulthood, adolescents are more likely than adults to take risks, including experimenting with addictive substances,” the report states.

“At the same time, because these regions of the brain are still developing, they are more vulnerable to the negative impact of addictive substances, further impairing judgment, interfering with brain development and increasing the risk of addiction.”

Ruben Baler, a health science administrator with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said it is critical that young people refrain from using.

“Whatever the (adolescent) is going through during these years is really shaping the way this tree we call the brain is being pruned and is sprouting. Any substance use at this point in time while the brain is still developing so actively is something we really want to prevent,” Baler said. “Even substances mislabeled as less dangerous, such as marijuana, could have a very profound and long-lasting effect on the way the brain is developing.”

Another problem is that substance abuse at a young age also seems to “freeze” emotional development.

Dr. Kenneth Thompson, medical director for the Caron Treatment Centers, said that under normal circumstances, people learn how to delay gratification or cope with sadness or anxiety without using a chemical. But those who regularly use substances don’t learn how because the substance eases those feelings. “If you start using a chemical to cope with those same things, (you’ve) frozen, in a way, your development. That is, you didn’t learn those skills.”

So what addiction specialists often see is that adults who began using in adolescence and are entering sobriety have trouble navigating those difficult emotions. They simply haven’t had to before, he said. Their perception, he said, is that they should always feel OK because when they were under the effect of the drug, they did.

READ MORE: Read the rest of this week's pieces of "A Sobering Story: The Disease of Addiction here, as well as last week's articles.

Do you or a loved one need help with addiction? Local resources are available here.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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