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Young adults breaking records for drug, alcohol hospital visits

A new government study paints a grim picture for young adults. Hospitalizations for alcohol and drug overdoses, alone or in combination, increased dramatically among 18- to 24-year-olds between 1999 and 2008.

Researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health, published their findings in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs after examining hospitalization data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, a project of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality designed to approximate a 20 percent sample of U.S. community hospitals.

Over the 10-year study period, hospitalizations among young adults increased by 25 percent for alcohol overdoses, 56 percent for drug overdoses, and 76 percent for combined alcohol and drug overdoses.

“In 2008, one out of three hospitalizations for overdoses in young adults involved excessive consumption of alcohol,” said Dr. Aaron M. White, co-leader of the research team. “Alcohol overdoses alone caused 29,000 hospitalizations, combined alcohol and other drug overdoses caused 29,000, and drug overdoses alone caused another 114,000. The cost of these hospitalizations now exceeds $1.2 billion per year just for 18-24-year-olds.”

According to the authors, this is a growing problem for those outside of the 18-24 age range, as well.

“Among the entire population 18 and older, 1.6 million people were hospitalized for overdoses in 2008, at a cost of $15.5 billion, and half of these hospitalizations involved alcohol overdoses,” said Dr. Ralph W. Hingson, who also led the research team.

The current study also showed an increase of 122 percent in the rate of poisonings from prescription opioid pain medications and related narcotics among 18- to 24-year-olds. An alcohol overdose was present in one of five poisonings on these medications.

“The combination of alcohol with narcotic pain medications is particularly dangerous, because they both suppress activity in brain areas that regulate breathing and other vital functions,” White said.

The researchers note that the steep rise in combined alcohol and drug overdoses highlights the significant risk and growing threat to public health of combining alcohol with other substances, including prescription medications. They call for stronger efforts to educate medical practitioners and the general public about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption alone or in combination with other drugs.

“An increase in screening for alcohol misuse would help clinicians identify patients at particularly high risk for excessive drinking and for alcohol and medication interactions,” said NIAAA Acting Director Kenneth Warren, Ph.D. “Clinicians should use brief intervention techniques to help young adults evaluate their relationship with alcohol and other drugs and make wise choices regarding future use.”

The NIAAA is the primary U.S. agency for conducting and supporting research on the causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol problems. The agency’s previous research has concluded that 40 percent of adolescents report drinking by 8th grade, and 55 percent report being drunk at least once by the end of their senior year of high school.

On a special agency website founded for the prevention of college drinking, it is clear that hospitalizations are only one consequence. Nearly 2,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including car crashes. Nearly 600,000 more are injured.

Alcohol influence has been cited in assault (nearly 700,000), sexual abuse (nearly 100,000) and unprotected sex (400,000) incidents. About 11 percent of college student drinkers report they have damaged property while under the influence, and more than 3 million say they have driven their car.

In addition, 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking — missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or assignments, and receiving lower grades in general.

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