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Teens Who Abuse Alcohol or Drugs are More Likely to Die Young, Pitt Study Finds

PITTSBURGH , June 19, 2008 — Teens who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to die in early adulthood, according to a study by University of Pittsburgh researchers published in the current issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The study, the first in a sample of U.S. adolescents, found that substance abuse disorders (SUDs) in adolescents significantly predicted young adult mortality. These deaths were linked to specific high-risk behaviors in adolescence, including intoxicated driving and drug trafficking.

“The fact that these were, to an extent, predictable deaths raises additional concerns about the hazards of alcohol and drug problems in teens and young adults,” said Duncan B. Clark, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC.

The researchers studied 870 white and African-American adolescents, ages 12 through 18, recruited from both clinical and community settings. The subjects were followed for up to eight years, starting in 1990.

Among the 870 adolescents, researchers noted 21 deaths, or about 2 percent of the group, at an average age of nearly 25 years. Fourteen of those deaths occurred in males with SUDs, or more than 10 percent of that group. Among African-American males with SUDs, 23 percent had died by the age of 25. Males with SUDs in this study group had a mortality rate far in excess of the rate of 137 per 100,000 reported for young adult males in the U.S. general population. Socioeconomic status was not a significant predictor of survival time. Causes of death for the young adults in the study ranged from homicide and suicide to drug overdose and motor vehicle accidents.

Dr. Clark noted that these results need to be confirmed in a larger, nationally representative sample over a longer period of time. Still, he said, “The adolescent characteristics predicting death in young adulthood can be readily identified in clinical evaluations.”

Adolescents may not be oblivious to the risks their behaviors pose. Previous studies have shown that many teens who engage in alcohol and drug use and other high-risk behavior believed they would die within two years. “Unfortunately, this insight on the part of some teens apparently does not eliminate these problem behaviors,” said Dr. Clark. “Effective interventions need to be developed to prevent these predictable deaths in our young adults.”

Co-authors of the study include Christopher S. Martin, Ph.D., and Jack R. Cornelius, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Clark was supported by funding provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is one of the nation’s leading medical schools, renowned for its curriculum that emphasizes both the science and humanity of medicine and its remarkable growth in National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant support, which has more than doubled since 1998. For fiscal year 2006, the University ranked sixth out of more than 3,000 entities receiving NIH support with respect to the research grants awarded to its faculty. The majority of these grants were awarded to the faculty of the medical school. As one of the university’s six Schools of the Health Sciences, the School of Medicine is the academic partner to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Their combined mission is to train tomorrow’s health care specialists and biomedical scientists, engage in groundbreaking research that will advance understanding of the causes and treatments of disease and participate in the delivery of outstanding patient care.

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