Research — 09 December 2014

The study authors say that until this study, little was known about prevalence of non-medical prescription drug use among young adults outside of the college education system. Around 30% of young Americans do not pursue a college education.

The data analyzed in the study was provided by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is an annual cross-sectional survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

The researchers analyzed data from 2008-2010, which involved 36,781 young adults between the ages of 18 and 22.

Among young adults who did not attend college, 13.1% of those with a high school degree and 13.2% of those without a high school degree reported using prescription opioids for non-medical reasons. The study reveals that 11.3% of college attendees report non-medical opioid use.

The study defined “non-medical” use as taking prescription pain relievers that were not prescribed or that were taken by the participants “only to experience the feeling they provided.”

The results show that the association between educational attainment and prescription drug abuse was stronger in young women than in young men.

Young women who completed high school but did not go on to a college education were found to be at a significantly greater risk for opioid abuse than their peers who attend college. In comparison, there was less of an increased risk for opioid drug abuse between young men who attend college and those who do not.

Non-Hispanic white participants were found to be more likely than non-Hispanic black and Asian participants to use prescription opioids non-medically.iStock_000004702288Large

Non-medical use of opioids, the authors say, is second only to marijuana as the most prevalent form of illegal drug use among young adults.

Findings on stimulant use among young adults are inverse of opioid findings

As well as investigating non-medical use of opioids, the researchers also looked at non-medical use of stimulants among young adults. Interestingly, the researchers report the opposite findings for stimulants as they found for opioids.

Participants who did not attend college were less likely to have used non-medical stimulants than those who enrolled at college. Also, participants who lived in a large metropolitan area were more likely to use non-medical stimulants than those who lived in less urban areas.

Young Asian adults were also found to be more likely than white peers to develop a stimulant use disorder.

First author of the study, Dr. Silvia S. Martins, Mailman School of Public Health associate professor of Epidemiology, explains the findings: “Our findings clearly show there is a need for young adult prevention and intervention programs to target non-medical prescription drug use beyond college campuses. This age group is particularly vulnerable to the development of adverse substance using patterns, due in part to the process of identity formation that emerges at this developmental stage.”

Dr. Martins adds that more than 40% of the non-medical opioid and stimulant users who began using the drugs at the age of 18 or younger went on to develop prescription opioid and stimulant disorders.

“Therefore,” she concludes, “prevention messages targeting young adult users of these drugs without a prescription are crucial to prevent escalation to either of these syndromes.”

This article first appeared on ‘Medical News Today’ on 6 December 2014.

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