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Prevention 101: Delay the Onset of First Use

by Jessica Hulsey

Prevention is about delaying the onset of first use, whether alcohol, tobacco or marijuana—the most commonly used substances among teens—until the brain has fully matured.

The earlier someone starts using substances, the greater their chances of developing a substance use disorder (SUD), and the more severe their illness is likely to be.

90% of Americans with a substance use disorder began using substances before the age of 18.

The adolescent brain is rapidly developing—learning and changing all the time. It can learn a language or musical instrument more quickly than an adult brain, but it can also be harmed more easily, which is why protecting the brain during this amazing period of development is so important.  

The brain continues to develop until a person is in their early to mid 20s, with the regions of the brain that keep emotions and impulses under control and help us make decisions among the last to develop. This helps explain why young people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as trying drugs and alcohol in the first place.

Other factors that put an adolescent at risk besides the age of first use include caregiver substance misuse, trauma, and a lack of social attachments. These are called individual factors, and they’re part of the “big three” in preventing addiction, along with environmental and genetic factors. Environmental factors include high drug availability, poverty, a lack of laws and enforcement, and social norms. And then there are genetic factors, which research suggests accounts for about half of a person’s likelihood of developing a SUD. While we can’t change our genetics, knowing about a family history of addiction should empower us to make different decisions about our substance use.

For every risk factor, there is a protective factor to counter-balance it. Prevention focuses on strengthening the protective factors that we can control to decrease the likelihood that a person or community will struggle with addiction.


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