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Adult Drug Users with ADHD Tend to Start Earlier

On average, adults who use drugs and also have a history of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder began using substances one to two years earlier than those without ADHD, according to new research from the University of Florida (UF).

The findings suggest the need for early substance-use prevention programs aimed at teens with ADHD.

The study is the first to compare the age at which adults, with and without ADHD, began using individual substances. The research also included a comprehensive assessment of HIV risk behaviors.

“The take-home message of this study shouldn’t be that children with ADHD are more likely to become drug users, rather, seemingly ‘normal’ teenage behavior, such as experimenting with tobacco or alcohol use, may occur at younger ages for individuals with ADHD and so this might serve as a red flag for an accelerated gateway to illicit drug use,” said lead author Eugene Dunne, a third-year doctoral student in clinical and health psychology at UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Experts suggest that people with ADHD who use drugs may be attempting to self-medicate some of the symptoms that go along with the disorder.

“Stimulant drugs such as nicotine and cocaine might be used to counter symptoms of inattention, while alcohol and marijuana may be used to counter feelings of hyperactivity or impulsivity,” said Dunne, a predoctoral fellow at UF’s Substance Abuse Training Center in Public Health.

For the study, researchers analyzed data that had been collected as part of another study on HIV prevention. Participants included more than 900 adults who had used illicit drugs in the past six months. They filled out questionnaires that asked about demographics, drug use, and sexual risk behaviors.

Among participants, 13 percent said they had previously received a diagnosis of ADHD from a health care provider.

“As hypothesized, we found the progression of participants’ adolescent substance use to be similar to that in the gateway theory of substance use, with alcohol being the first reported, followed very closely by cigarettes, then leading to marijuana and eventually more illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin,” Dunne said.

On average, those with a history of ADHD said they first drank alcohol at age 13 — about one and a half years earlier than their counterparts. Those who used cocaine began doing so, on average, at age 22 — about two years earlier than those who did not have a history of ADHD.

“Our study also found that current risk behaviors for HIV, such as injection drug use and needle sharing, were associated with ADHD history, so perhaps impulsivity and other ADHD symptoms might continue to be a factor in adult decision-making,” Dunne said.

The findings are published in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

Source: University of Florida


Adult Drug Users with ADHD Tend to Start Earlier

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Adult Drug Users with ADHD Tend to Start Earlier. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.