Early Puberty Linked to Early Substance Abuse

Study found those who matured physically at younger age more likely to experiment

TUESDAY, Sept. 7, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Kids who enter puberty early are more likely to use and abuse tobacco, alcohol and marijuana than those who physically mature later, mostly because their window of opportunity for experimentation is wider.

Early puberty showed itself to be more important than age or school grade in influencing this type of behavior, claims a study in the September issue of Pediatrics.

"Puberty marks the beginning of adolescence and the beginning of a much higher risk period for substance use and abuse. For the individual, this is true whether puberty occurs early or late," explained study author Dr. George C. Patton. "Where puberty occurs early that individual enters the higher risk period at an earlier point and hence the risk period is extended downwards, widened if you like."

Patton is professor of adolescent health at the Centre for Adolescent Health at Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

The findings raise the possibility that anti-substance abuse messages geared to younger kids might be helpful.

"Teens who develop early might be a risk group that is in need of more attention than we're currently giving," said Suzanne Ryan, a research associate with Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C. "There might need to be more vigilance by parents that if teens are developing earlier, just to be aware that they might be facing a set of problems in terms of age this society doesn't think they're faced with."

This study, which was done in conjunction with researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, surveyed 5,769 10-to-15-year-olds in both Washington State and in Victoria, Australia. Participants completed questionnaires about use of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. They also were asked to rate their own biological development by providing information on breast and pubic hair development. After completing the survey, students in Washington received $10 in compensation while students in Victoria received a pocket calculator.

The odds that a student had used a substance in his or her lifetime was almost twice as high in mid-puberty and three times as high in late puberty. Recent substance abuse was about 40 percent higher for those in mid-puberty and more than twice as high for those in late puberty, the survey found.

The odds of substance abuse were twice as high for those in mid-puberty and more than three times as high in late puberty.

Those in the later stages of puberty were more likely to report having friends who were substance users, a relationship that partly accounted for substance abuse.

The road to substance use and abuse seemed to be influenced primarily by "the tendency of the mature youngster to seek out those who were substance users as friends," Patton said. "That was the main change affecting substance use. That may have something to do with substance users being the 'cool' group to belong to." Other factors, such as a more distant and conflicted relationship with parents, also increased the risk for substance use.

But if knowledge is power, this information should give parents and researchers more tools for prevention.

"First and foremost, the findings are telling us about the timing for investment in prevention of substance use. Late childhood through to the mid-teens is a crucial phase for the timing," Patton said. "The focus we have often had has been on health education of youth, but this study tells us something about why this is unlikely to work in a setting where substance use is common. The strategies that are likely to be most effective are those that restrict access to substance use within the younger teenage group. [This might include] enforcement of existing legal sanctions against use and sale of substances to this age group and clear and communicated community standards around substance use."

More information

Find more on puberty at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

SOURCES: George C. Patton, M.D., professor, adolescent health, Centre for Adolescent Health, Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia; Suzanne Ryan, Ph.D., research associate, Child Trends, Washington, D.C.; September 2004 Pediatrics
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