5 Reasons Substance Abuse Is More Dangerous for Young People

From brain development to health risk, substance abuse is riskier when young.

Posted Jun 24, 2014

Source: Aleshyn_Andrei/Shutterstock

When you are young, you shape your possibilities. Research in psychology and neuroscience shows that your personality and your intelligence develop during childhood and teenage years until becoming fully developed by age 25.

Likewise, during your younger years, you write the story you tell about yourself. Who are you? How do you understand your worth and your potential? Then you live this story through your adult life.

In other words, the person you shape while growing up can be the person you’re stuck with. So allowing drugs or alcohol to influence this young person can affect not just who you are today, but also who you can be and will become.

Here are five reasons why substance abuse is especially dangerous for young people.

1. Damage to the Developing Brain

The brain you are born with is not necessarily the same brain you bring into adulthood. Between these two events—birth and about age 25—your brain is developing to meet the needs of your environment. How you are parented, intellectual challenges, your nutrition, and many more things influence how parts of your brain develop during this time. Substances of abuse can change or stop this development.

A review in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research collects what we know about how, exactly, alcohol influences the developing brain. The review writes that brain areas “actively developing during adolescence include the prefrontal cortex, limbic system areas, and white matter myelin. These areas serving cognitive, behavioral, and emotional regulation may be particularly vulnerable to adverse alcohol effects.”

Specifically, the prefrontal cortex controls complex decision-making and the “executive function” activities of reasoning, planning, and willpower; the limbic system controls emotion, motivation, and emotional learning; and white matter myelin is the coating of insulation which allows electrical signals to travel efficiently throughout the brain (and which breaks down in Alzheimer’s disease).

Together, impacts on the development of these systems can lead to impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and slower cognitive function.  

2. Risk of Addiction

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, people who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol abuse and dependence than people who start after age 21. Part of this, again, is due to the structure and function of the adolescent brain.

Basically, the teen brain craves new experiences. It is wired to be impulsive. For most people, this is a transitional period—you are impulsive in your youth and then learn moderation as you age. Of course, impulsivity makes teenagers more likely to experiment with substances of abuse. And, unfortunately, as this article in the American Journal of Psychiatry shows, teens who abuse substances can get stuck in this developmental period of impulsivity.

When a young person uses drugs or alcohol, it can embalm him or her in a state of readiness for more drugs and alcohol. The younger you start using, the more serious the problem is likely to become (and the more likely the problem will become serious).

3. Long-Term Health Risk

Here’s the obvious part: The longer you subject your body to substances of abuse, the more likely you are to eventually experience health consequences, like cardiovascular disease, dementia, and even cancer. The earlier you start, the more years you have available for substance abuse, and the more likely these substances are to eventually start  “breaking down” the body systems they affect.

But in addition to this traditional view of accumulated risk, new evidence shows that substances may be more harmful to young bodies than to developed bodies. Basically, young bodies aren’t ready to handle the challenge of substances. For example, this study shows that younger people who drink heavily are even more likely than older people who drink similar amounts for similar durations to experience cirrhosis of the liver.

4. Behavioral Health Risk

Health risks associated with teen and young adult substance use aren’t limited to the direct effects of the substances themselves. Risk also comes from the behaviors of young people who use substances. According to the NCADD fact sheet Facts About Underage Drinking (paid download here),

“Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking. This includes about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, and hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns, and drownings. And, approximately 600,000 college students are unintentionally injured while under the influence of alcohol. Approximately 700,000 students are assaulted by other students who have been drinking, and about 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.”

Substances are dangerous. They can also make you dangerous to yourself or to others.

5. Social Development

Just as physical development is in overdrive during teenage and young adult years, social development is in high gear as well. According to the psychologist Erik Erikson, the primary developmental challenge of young adulthood is to resolve the conflict of intimacy versus isolation—can you give away some independence to form a close relationship with a partner?

Erikson saw the ability to form these bonds as essential to the path of human development that leads later to productivity in middle age and integrity as an older person. As long as substance abuse blocks the potential for intimacy, a young person will remain stuck in their personal and social development. The same is true of your career; what you do as a young person defines much of your potential later in life.

The foundation for successful relationships and careers is laid during young adulthood. And these two social stepping-stones, in turn, lay the foundation for well-being in later life. If this critical period is instead spent on substances of abuse, young people can miss these important milestones in their social development.

In young adulthood, life paths diverge—some paths point toward well-being, intimacy, security, and success; others point toward struggle, declining health, and isolation. Substance abuse at any age can be devastating to mind, body, and spirit, but especially when young, addiction or dependence can define the direction of your future life path.

Which path will you choose? The choices you make when young can help define who you will be for the rest of your life.