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How Age of Onset Predicts Drug and Alcohol Dependency


Transmissible risk refers to generational risk or family risk. Some people have a family history of physical or mental health problems, which makes them more vulnerable to developing the same problems. Therefore, there is a transmissible risk of future illness. It is theorized that the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD), cannabis use disorder (CUD), or any substance use disorder (SUD) may be increased as a result of transmissible risk. Another factor that influences the likelihood of developing an SUD is age of first use.

But until now, no study has looked at how age of first use of cannabis versus alcohol affects transmissible risk. Therefore, Levent Kirisci of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh recently led a study that examined these variables in a group of 339 children. Kirisci followed the children from age 12 through 22 and assessed their risk using the Transmissible Liability Index (TLI). The participants reported the age they first used alcohol, cannabis, or other illegal or legal drugs.

The results revealed that the higher the children scored on the TLI, the younger they were when they started using alcohol or drugs. Also, those who used cannabis before alcohol had a score that was seven times higher than those who first used alcohol. This suggests that children who begin their drug use with cannabis are at a much greater risk of developing dependency than those who use alcohol first. In fact, nearly one-quarter of the participants began with cannabis rather than alcohol, a finding that contradicts that gateway theory. In essence, these findings don’t show that alcohol opened the door for further drug use for the majority of these children. In fact, a large number of them were already using illegal drugs before they experimented with legal drugs or alcohol. Kirisci notes that although this study does not provide evidence that early onset age predicts SUD in general, it does show that the earlier a child starts using drugs or alcohol, the higher their transmissible risk is. “These findings underscore the importance of directing prevention at high-risk youths prior to first substance exposure,” Kirisci said.

Kirisci, L., Tarter, R., Ridenour, T., Zhai, Z. W., Fishbein, D., Reynolds, M., Vanyukov, M. (2012). Age of alcohol and cannabis use onset mediates the association of transmissible risk in childhood and development of alcohol and cannabis disorders: Evidence for common liability. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030742

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  • Adam v December 18th, 2012 at 4:06 AM #1

    It really is scary just how young many kids are when they first start experimenting.
    Where are they getting drugs from and how are they so easily accessible?
    I remember being a kid or a teenager and wanting to sneak a amoke and not even being able to find a cigarette, much less hard drugs and alcohol.
    but they are so readily available now that it’s no wonder that younger and younger kids are wanting to try them and see what it’s all about.

  • Peter December 18th, 2012 at 8:09 AM #2

    When I read the title of this article, I thought the outcome was going to be the opposite. I figured most kids experiment with stuff but then they outgrow it. However, if an older person experiments with drugs, it seems that it would be more likely an attempt at self-medicating, translating to an increased risk of dependence. Goes to show what I get for thinking!

  • tori December 18th, 2012 at 8:14 AM #3

    very interesting that kids dont’ start with alcohol. i kind of thought that was the gateway drug of choice.

  • Seth December 18th, 2012 at 8:16 AM #4

    Depression is such a heart breaker. It is so that kids can’t see around corners and put their entire futures in jeopardy with that first smoke or first drink. I really wish more effective prevention programs were in place in middle and high schools.

  • Ms Tanya December 18th, 2012 at 8:27 AM #5

    Seth, I have to agree with you. I have kids in elementary school and one in high school. Red ribbon thing seems to be a great tool in elementary school, but in middle and high school, nothing is really done or said that I’ve seen. This is an area that could really use improvements in our schools. And, it doesn’t have to be expensive or involve hiring more teachers. Just some brain power going a long, long way.

  • Hewitt December 18th, 2012 at 10:51 AM #6

    @Adam v:Oh, we have the prohibition to blame in part. Alcohol is much harder to procure for a youngster than say cannabis today. That’s because the liquor store is going to ask you for age prof but the dealer downtown will not! Its as simple as that. Decades of prohibition have not worked. What is required is education not limiting. limiting only drives humans to try what is forbidden. Lets us not forget what happened with Adam and Eve.

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