Age and Weight: Two Teenage Triggers for Substance Abuse

Teens who are overweight and experiment with substances are at a very high risk for addiction.

Liam downed his first beer at a friend’s house when he was 11. Shortly after that initiation, he drank occasionally, then more frequently.

Jackson wasn’t interested in alcohol until his freshman year of college. At 18, he had his first mixed drink. Like Liam, after this first experience, he drank on occasion, then more often.

Here’s the key difference: Because Liam’s alcohol use began before age 12, he’s more than twice as likely as Jackson to experience a lifetime of alcohol dependence.

Early Use = Later Problems

We know from previous research that use of alcohol at an early age is linked to a host of problems. In teens, it’s associated with academic problems, sexual risk-taking and substance abuse. By young adulthood, early alcohol use is linked to employment problems, criminal activity and violent behavior.

With this in mind, it’s important to determine what factors influence adolescents to start drinking. A recent study discovered that weight is one of those factors.

Obesity Weighs In

At eight years old, Maria is 25 pounds heavier than a typical third-grader. Holly’s in the same class as Maria and weighs 58 pounds (the average weight for an 8-year old.)

Kara, another classmate, is similar in size to Maria. Billy’s also a member of this third-grade class; he’s slightly heavier than Maria.

Which of these third-graders is more likely to begin using alcohol at an earlier age?

  • It’s not Billy. The study reveals that weight is associated with earlier substance abuse for girls, but not boys.
  • It’s not Kara. Although, she faces a different risk. Based on the study results, as a white female, Kara’s obesity means she’s more likely to use marijuana earlier in life, which has its own set of problems.
  • As an overweight Hispanic girl, Maria is more likely to use alcohol at a younger age. This, in turn, makes her more likely to abuse substances as an adolescent and to develop a lifetime of alcohol dependence and abuse.

Time for a Targeted Intervention

These results help target at-risk populations with appropriate interventions. Early education programs about substance abuse would benefit Hispanic girls. Programs to encourage health, fitness and prevent obesity are key for young girls. Implementing early screening and prevention programs for overweight girls could reduce their risk of alcohol-related problems in adolescence - and for the rest of their lives.

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