Childhood stress may lead to substance use in adolescents of both sexes

, medical expert
Last reviewed: 14.06.2024

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03 June 2024, 15:02

Childhood stress is associated with earlier substance use in adolescents of both sexes, according to research presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society ENDO 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts.. Researchers have found that traumatic events may increase the risk of substance use in boys, while environmental stress and early puberty may increase the risk in girls.

Early life stress is children's experiences of abuse, neglect and conflict. Approximately 20% of adolescents in the United States have experienced early stress at some point, and these experiences influence the health behaviors of adolescents and adults.

Onset of substance use at an earlier age is associated with more severe substance use disorder in adulthood. Early stress and early puberty have both been associated with early substance use, but it was not clear whether these associations are the same in boys and girls.

Alexandra Donovan, Ph.D., Principal Investigator at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, California

Donovan and her colleagues assessed sex differences in the effects of puberty and stress on alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis use by age 13. They analyzed data from 8,608 participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study who were 9 or 10 years old at the start of the study. The study included data from the first three years of the ABCD Study.

Researchers examined the effects of early stress and found that it increased the likelihood of earlier use of alcohol, nicotine or cannabis in both sexes.

Early stress increased the likelihood of earlier substance use in boys by 9-18% and in girls by 13-20%. Environmental stress increased the likelihood of early nicotine and cannabis use in girls by 15-24%. Traumatic stress increased the likelihood in boys by 15-16%. High puberty scores increased the likelihood of earlier nicotine use in girls, while decreasing the likelihood in boys.

“Our study confirms the link between early stress and substance use in adolescents, expanding our understanding of how this link may differ by gender,” Donovan said. “These results can be used to refine prevention programs in schools, encouraging a more individualized approach.”

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