New York—Emerging adults ages 18 to 25 years had a 37% increase in the odds of having prescription opioid-use disorder over a 12-year period, while young adults ages 26 to 34 years doubled their risks, according to a new study.

The report published in the journal Addictive Behaviors found there was an increase in the probability of having a prescription opioid use disorder in the past year among 18- to 34-year-old nonmedical prescription opioid users in 2014 compared to 2002. Among adolescents, the prevalence of prescription opioid use disorder remained relatively stable during the same period, according to the research.

The study, led by researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, was touted as the first to investigate time trends and increases over the last decade in prescription-opioid use disorder, defined as meeting the criteria for clinical abuse and dependence and needing treatment.

Using data originated from the 2002 to 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the study team also found that the odds of heroin use among emerging adults who used opioids without a medical prescription quadrupled, while increasing 9-fold over time among young adults in that category.

“We see an increasing trend from 2002 to 2014 among both groups,” noted first author Silvia Martins, MD, PhD.

The article indicates that, while heroin use began at about 2% among emerging adults and young adults, it rose by the end of the study period to 7% and 12%, respectively. Most, nearly 80%, of 12-to-21-year-olds who reported initiation of heroin use had previously started nonmedical use of prescription opioids between the ages of 13 and 18, study authors emphasize.

“Given this and the high probability of nonmedical use among adolescents and young adults in general, the potential development of prescription opioid use disorder among youth and young adults represents an important and growing public health concern,” Martins explained.

At the same time, the past-year prevalence of nonmedical prescription opioid use significantly decreased—dropping from 8% to 5%—from 2002 to 2014 among adolescents and emerging adults—a decline from 11% to 8%—while staying flat among young adults at 6%.

“Our analyses present the evidence to raise awareness and urgency to address these rising and problematic trends among young adults,” Martins added. “While increases in prescription opioid use disorder might be rooted in health policy, medical practice, pharmaceutical industry interests, and patient behavior, it is critical that the general public, particularly youth, are informed about the related harms and disorders that can occur when prescription opioids are used without regular medical supervision.”

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