Young Adults are Abusing Drugs More than Their Parents Did

Young adults party

A recent study put forth information suggesting young people use drugs at a rate higher than their parents did when their parents were young. The study focused on a broad range of health metrics, including physiological status, mental health, and behavioral health. Unfortunately, health indicators across a range of metrics seem to have deteriorated, suggesting that the American population is becoming less healthy as time passes.

Focusing on drug use trends specifically, if young people are using drugs at a rate greater than their parents did when they were young, this suggests that much needs to be done to address addiction in America, both in the realm of prevention and in the realm of treatment.

A Look at the Study

Drug and alcohol abuse is playing a prominent role in creating a condition where young Americans are unhealthier than their parents were. According to a March 2021 study, health outcomes are worsening for Generation X and Generation Y (Millennials) when compared to the health outcomes during young-adult years for Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation. According to the study, Generation Xers and Millennials are more likely to drink, use drugs, smoke, and struggle with anxiety, depression, and obesity than Baby Boomers did when they were in their 20s and 30s.

The study, which based its data on more than 688,000 Americans who took part in either of two long-running government health studies, indicated strongly that each new generation is experiencing gradually worsening health outcomes. While medicine has certainly advanced in leaps and bounds in the last several decades, young people are still experiencing worse health outcomes than their parents did. Sadly, drug use is part (but not all) of that picture.

“The declining health among younger generations is not just an individual problem, but more a societal problem...”
Mother and daughter, health problems

Quoting study leader Hui Zheng, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University in Columbus, “The declining health among younger generations is not just an individual problem, but more a societal problem. Society needs to change the environment, reduce inequality and enhance job security for younger generations.”

Zheng went on to say that no single study can get to the root of such a complex issue as generational changes in health outcomes. And there is no simple solution to a problem that is, itself, not simple.

However, taking just one aspect of the study, young adult drug use, we can explore the issue further. We can use the study data to encourage parents of today to increase their efforts to prevent young people from using drugs.

Young Adult Drug Use Statistics

From 2011 to 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducted a study of college-age young adults, examining drug use trends among Americans ages 18 to 22. According to the findings:

  • More than one-third of adults in this age bracket engaged in binge drinking in the past month.
  • About one in five adults in this age bracket used an illicit drug in the past month.
  • About 2,179 college-age adults drink alcohol for the first time every day.
  • Approximately 1,326 individuals in this age bracket use an illicit drug for the first time every day.
  • About 1,299 persons in this age group use marijuana for the first time every day.
  • Roughly 559 young individuals use prescription drugs for the first time every day.
  • Approximately 447 young people use cocaine for the first time every day.
  • About 19 young people ages 18 to 22 use heroin for the first time every day.

These inception rates (the number of people who are using drugs for the first time) are alarmingly higher than they were several decades ago. They suggest that young people are simply using drugs more than previous younger generations did.

Young People are Also Overdosing More

Overdosed daughter at the hospital

According to a 2018 NIDA report, while young people are using drugs less often than they were in the 1990s, not only are they still using drugs more than their parents did, but they’re also overdosing on drugs at a rate never before seen. This is extremely concerning.

Beginning in 2015, the number of young adult overdose deaths began increasing. First, it went up to 3.7 deaths for every 100,000 young people. That rate of death panned out to about 772 deaths in 2015. Most young people who died from drugs in 2015 overdosed on heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. This is especially worrying because drug abuse among young people has not traditionally involved heroin or fentanyl. So not only are more young people dying from drugs, but they’re using drugs they did not use in previous generations.

The problem only got worse as the years passed. In 2016, 873 young people died from drug overdoses. In 2017, 1,050 young people died from overdoses. The number decreased to 790 deaths in 2018 but then rose again in 2019. If families do not take drastic action to educate their teen and young adult sons and daughters about the risks of drug use, overdose fatalities will continue to go up.

Unique Risk Factors – Young Adults Have Even More to Lose When They Use Drugs

There is ample reason to be concerned that young people are using drugs more than their parents did. One factor is that young people face unique dangers when they use drugs. Young people are statistically more likely to take serious risks when under the influence of drugs and alcohol (such as having unprotected sex or engaging in dangerous driving). And furthermore, a young person’s brain is still developing until around age 25, putting them at risk for developmental problems if they use drugs.

Drug use in one’s youth is also associated with the development of health problems later on in life, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, cancer, memory loss, etc.

A Final Word

For a brief period in the early years of the addiction epidemic (from about 2000-2010), young people seemed to have some degree of protection from the addiction crisis. Some of them were using drugs, yes, but rates of drug use were lower than they were in previous decades. This has since changed. Not only are young people using drugs at higher rates today than their parents did, but they’re using more deadly drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids.

To ensure that the younger generation goes on to live happy, healthy, and long lives, it’s up to American families and communities to ensure that young people are informed and educated on the risks of drug use and that they get help for drug abuse when they need it.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS,MCAP, LCDC-I



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.