Why Are Younger Adults More Vulnerable To Drug Addiction?



  October 27, 2017    

Young adults tend to be more susceptible to drug use addiction for a couple of reasons. In the late teens and early twenties, many can still be susceptible to the effects of peer pressure, which can sometimes lead to drug use. Also, because the brain is still developing, they can be more susceptible than older adults to both risk-taking activities and reward-based behaviors. All these factors combine to result in greater susceptibility to addiction in the late teens and early twenties.

Peer Pressure and Its Effect on Drug Addiction

Peer groups consist of people of similar age, background, social status or interests. They usually contain informal hierarchies and shared behavioral patterns. During adolescence, and into young adulthood, people begin spending more time with their peers and less time with their families. The influence that this group has on the choices and life of the individual is peer pressure and it can be a strong driving force of behavior.

This can include adopting habits and behaviors that the person, on their own, would not take up. Any behavior that is valued by others in the group can be associated with pressure for the individual to conform to maintain the acceptance of the group. The way that someone learns by watching and modeling the behavior of others is explained by social learning theory. This can be either a positive or a negative process. For example, a child can learn not to touch a hot stove by witnessing someone else doing so or an adolescent take drugs or alcohol because a peer seems to enjoy doing so.

When someone is using drugs, they tend to prefer spending their time with others who share that habit. Within the peer group, drug use is considered normal behavior and can be the main factor that unites them. The support of others in the group can provide the reinforcement required to keep the individual using. That is why peer pressure plays a major role in the development of drug use behavior that can lead to young adult addiction issues.

How Risk-Taking Behavior in Young Adults Can Lead to Drug Addiction

Another factor involved in drug use in young adulthood is a tendency toward risk-taking behavior at this developmental stage. To understand why this occurs, it is necessary to explore the process of brain development. Beginning before birth, the brain is growing and creating new networks and connections. Way more than it needs, in fact. To create the most efficient nervous system pathways, it is first necessary to create an excessive amount of connections.

About the time that puberty hits, the brain starts pruning down those connections to a more efficient number. There are two ways in which this process is accomplished. First, there is the “use it or lose it” principle. This basically means that the connections most often used are most likely to remain and those that are used the least are eliminated. The result is a more effective use of the brain’s energy and efforts by eliminating the weakest connections and keeping the strongest.

The other principle of brain pruning is that it proceeds from back to front. In other words, the pruning begins with the most primitive, instinctive parts of the brain and works its way forward ending with the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for logical reasoning and impulse control. That’s why teenagers and young adults tend to take part in risk-taking activities, such as drug use.

The Brain’s Reward System and the Role It Plays in Drug Addiction Susceptibility in Young Adulthood

The brain’s reward system is responsible for encouraging behaviors, such as eating or sex, that are vital to survival. It is this intrinsic reward system that makes it vulnerable to the dangers of drug addiction. The reward system works by flooding the brain with dopamine, which results in a pleasurable sensation. When released at levels that are higher than usual, it can have a euphoric effect. It is this mechanism that is behind the brain’s role in drug addiction.

Some of the effects of drug addiction, like cravings and needing to keep increasing how much drugs are being taken, are a result of how they affect the brain’s reward system. Because drugs can induce higher and longer-lasting dopamine levels than the brain’s intrinsic rewards, an addictive disorder can develop. The long-term result of this dopamine over-activity tends to be a decreased brain sensitivity to the neurotransmitter which can lead to an inability to enjoy any pleasurable activities.

Young adults are more susceptible to the addictive effects of drugs on the brain’s reward system. This is because the brain continues to develop into the mid-20’s and, until the process is complete, it functions differently. The part of the brain that is responsible for both the planning of actions and the formation of habits is more influenced by the reward system at this age. Therefore, the release of dopamine that results from drug use will affect decision-making more in young adulthood than it will later.

It is, therefore, a combination of peer pressure and incomplete brain development that are responsible for the increased risk of drug addiction in young adults.

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