Prescription drug misuse can predict this trajectory

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The frequency and age at which older teens and young adults misuse prescription drugs can predict substance use disorders later in life, especially alcohol misuse, according to a new study.

In the past year, more than 17 million Americans misused prescription drugs—a behavior most common during late adolescence and young adulthood.

Researchers examined annual misuse patterns for prescription opioids, stimulants, and sedatives/tranquilizers in the same people from age 18 to 35 to learn which prescription drug use trajectories predicted later symptoms of substance use disorders.

“We found that any misuse predicted substance-related problems, but when annual misuse peaked at 10 or more occasions the odds of developing serious substance-related problems skyrocketed,” says Sean Esteban McCabe, professor of nursing and co-director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking, and Health at the University of Michigan.

Those odds increased with peak use age.

“More than two thirds of individuals (68.7%) who had a later peak in annual prescription drug misuse, at ages 27-28, developed two or more substance use disorder symptoms at age 35,” says McCabe, first author of the study in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Of those, 55% showed symptoms of alcohol use disorder, according to the study. Among people whose misuse peaked earlier, at ages 23-24, 56% showed signs of substance use disorder by age 35. Of those who rarely misused prescription drugs, about 22% showed symptoms of any substance use disorder.

“Interventions to address prescription drug misuse need to be designed to treat symptoms related to prescription drug misuse and other substance use disorders, especially symptoms of alcohol use disorder,” McCabe says.

“As we show in this study, the trajectory of prescription drug misuse is important in setting the stage for adulthood substance use disorder, particularly in terms of the timing of the peak of misuse.”

Using data from the national US Monitoring the Future study, the researchers identified five drug misuse trajectories: rare or no misuse and peak misuse at age 18, ages 19-20, ages 23-24, and ages 27-28.

The study showed similar misuse trajectories, with the exception of sedatives and tranquilizers, in which misuse peaked at an older age. This suggests that risks of prescription drug misuse span different ages and vary among drug classes, McCabe says.

Additional coauthors are from the University of Michigan and Texas State University. The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the work.

Source: University of Michigan