Stress in Childhood Associated with Earlier Adolescent Substance Use

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Research presented at ENDO 2024 found that environmental stress increased the likelihood of earlier alcohol, nicotine and cannabis use in females and traumatic events increased the likelihood in males.

Experiencing stress during childhood may increase the likelihood that adolescents will begin using substances at an earlier age, according to research presented at the Endocrine Society’s 2024 annual meeting, held June 1 to 4 in Boston, Massachusetts.1 The authors said that the findings can help describe sex differences as a factor for increased risk of substance use initiation among youth exposed to early life stress.

Stress in Childhood Associated with Earlier Adolescent Substance Use / Daniel Jędzura - stock.adobe.com

Stress in Childhood Associated with Earlier Adolescent Substance Use / Daniel Jędzura - stock.adobe.com

Stress early in life, also called early adversity or childhood trauma, includes experiences of abuse, neglect and conflict. Approximately 20% of adolescents in the United States have experienced stress at some point early in life, which can result in a wide range of adverse effects on development.2

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“Starting substance use at an earlier age is associated with more severe substance use disorder in adulthood,” Alexandra Donovan, PhD, lead author on the study, said in a release.1 “Early life stress and early puberty have both been associated with early substance use, but it wasn’t clear whether these connections are the same across boys and girls.”

Investigators from Drew University of Medicine and Science conducted a study to evaluate sex differences in the impact of puberty and stress on alcohol, nicotine and cannabis use by the age of 13. Data for the study was gathered from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States.

The study cohort included 8608 adolescents who were between the ages of 9 and 10 when the ABCD study began. Early life stress scores were measured using the ABCD database release 5.0, puberty was assessed through parental report on the Pubertal Development Scale, and estradiol, testosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) were analyzed by salivary samples.

Investigators found that early life stress increased the likelihood of earlier substance use by 9% to 18% and 13% to 20% in male and female adolescents, respectively. In particular, environmental stress increased the likelihood in females by 15% to 24% and traumatic events increased the likelihood in males by 15% to 16%. Additionally, early puberty increased the likelihood of earlier nicotine use for females but decreased the likelihood for males.

“Our study supports the link between early life stress and teen substance use, extending our understanding of how this connection can differ across sex,” Donovan said in a release.1 “These findings may be used to refine prevention programs in schools, encouraging a more individualized approach.”

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References

1. Donovan A, Assari S, Shaheen M, et al. Early Life Stress and Pubertal Predictors of Youth Substance Use Initiation: Does Sex Moderate the Relationship Between ELS, Puberty, and Substance Use Initiation? Presented at: ENDO 2024; June 1-4, 2024; Boston, MA.

2. Smith KE, Pollak SD. Early life stress and development: potential mechanisms for adverse outcomes. J Neurodev Disord. 2020 Dec 16;12(1):34. doi: 10.1186/s11689-020-09337-y. PMID: 33327939; PMCID: PMC7745388.

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