Teen Sleep Issues Could Spark Adult Drug and Alcohol Problems

By McCarton Ackerman 01/20/15

A new study found that teens experiencing trouble with sleep are more likely to have problems with substance abuse.

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It's common among many teenagers to sleep late, but a new study has found that adolescents who have issues with falling asleep may be more susceptible to binge drinking, driving drunk, and risky sexual behavior later in life.

The findings are being published next month in the online-only edition of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Maria M. Wong, professor and director of experimental training in the department of psychology at Idaho State University, led a team which analyzed data from 6,504 adolescents (52% boys and 48% girls) that was collected in three waves: 1994-95, 1996, and 2001-02.

Wong concluded that those with sleep difficulties in the 1994-95 wave had much higher instances of "alcohol-related interpersonal problems, binge drinking...driving under the influence, getting into a sexual situation one later regretted due to drinking...and drug-related problems at the second wave."

The findings are particularly noteworthy since national polls have shown that 27% of school-age children and 45% of adolescents don't sleep enough. Wong noted that sleep issues and subsequent tiredness in school-age children leads to a lower response inhibition in adolescence, which in turn increased issues in adulthood with binge drinking, blackouts, driving drunk, and general alcohol problems.

In normal adults, sleep issues increased the risk of alcohol use one year later and a drug problem 3.5 years later. Those with insomnia who were currently receiving treatment for alcohol use were also more likely to relapse.

However, it appears that adolescents must be getting more sleep because teen drinking, drug and alcohol use has declined overall. The annual survey from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that between 2002-2013, substance abuse issues among teenagers dropped from 8.9% to 5.2%. Rates of drug abuse dropped from 12% to under 9% during this same time period, drunk driving declined from 14% to 11% and tobacco use plummeted from 15% to 8%.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.