Why is adolescence a critical time for preventing drug addiction?

Early use of drugs increases a person’s chances of more serious drug abuse and addiction. Remember, drugs change brains—and this can lead to addiction and other serious problems. So preventing early use of drugs or alcohol may reduce the risk of progressing to later abuse and addiction.

Risk of drug abuse increases greatly during times of transition, such as changing schools, moving, or divorce.1  At the same time, many behaviors that are a normal aspect of their development, such as the desire to do something new or risky, may increase teen tendencies to experiment with drugs. Some teens may give in to the peer pressure, when friends who use drugs urge them to share the experience with them. Others may think that taking drugs (such as steroids) will improve their appearance or their athletic performance or that abusing substances such as alcohol or ecstasy (MDMA) will ease their anxiety in social situations.

Judgment and decision-making skills are still developing in teens, so their ability to assess risks accurately and make sound decisions about using drugs may be limited. Drug and alcohol abuse can disrupt brain function in areas critical to motivation, memory, learning, judgment, and behavior control.2 So, it is not surprising that teens who abuse alcohol and other drugs often have family and school problems, poor academic performance, health-related problems (including mental health), and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

1 Krohn MD, Lizotte AJ, Perez CM. The interrelationship between substance use and precocious transitions to adult statuses. J Health Soc Behav 38(1):87-103, 1997.

2 Fowler JS, Volkow ND, Kassed CA, Chang L. Imaging the addicted human brain. Sci Pract Perspect 3(2):4-16, 2007.

(Adapted from http://www.nida.nih.gov/scienceofaddiction)

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