MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr. James Williams
UCL Medical School
UCL, London, UK
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: Despite a downward trend over the last decade in the usage of particular substances amongst adolescents in the UK, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis remain prevalent behaviours in this demographic. These risky health behaviours present a large problem in terms of public health due to the immediate and long-term health problems they cause, as well as negative non-health outcomes such as poor educational attainment and reduced employment.
The role of academic ability in determining patterns of substance use is not clear and no study has evaluated academic ability at age 11 in relation to the onset and persistence of all three substances from early to late adolescence and into young adulthood. Our study sought to determine the association between academic ability and the onset and persistence of substance use in adolescence in a representative sample of English school pupils. This would answer for the first time whether ability was associated with ‘experimentation’ in early adolescence or if the association persists into late adolescence.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: Our study found that a high academic ability was associated with a reduced risk of persistent cigarette smoking in early adolescence but an increased risk of occasional and persistent regular alcohol drinking in early adolescence and persistent regular alcohol drinking in late adolescence. We also found that high academic ability was also positively associated with occasional and persistent cannabis use in late adolescence. These results provide evidence against the hypothesis that higher academic ability adolescents temporarily ‘experiment’ with substances.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: Our finding that adolescents with high academic ability are less likely to smoke but more likely to drink alcohol regularly and smoke cannabis is broadly consistent with the existing evidence base on adults but the associations are not fully understood. A range of possible explanations have been proposed that could be studied in the future. Higher cognitive ability adolescents have been shown to be more open to new experiences but our results provide evidence that higher academic ability may lead to more persistent usage, as opposed to experimentation.
A greater understanding of substance use patterns in adolescence is useful for clinicians and policymakers who are concerned about the impact of substance use on health and non-health outcomes. Although we have demonstrated a positive association between high academic ability and regular alcohol drinking, it should not be assumed that children with low academic ability do not need targeting by health interventions as they are more likely to engage in hazardous levels of alcohol consumption.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Response: The dataset we used did not contain subject-specific exam scores, quantity and type of alcohol consumed and context of substance use. Future studies could investigate these variables to further clarify the relationship between academic ability and adolescent substance use. Furthermore, as all participants shared the same birth year, so the patterns we observed may not generalise beyond these pupils. Further cohort studies should be conducted to provide similar data for comparison. The follow up study, Next Steps, is being released in Spring 2017 and further analyses should be conducted using this data to assess usage patterns in adulthood.
MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add? Any disclosures.
Response: This study was conducted by researchers from University College London Medical School and the Administrative Data Research Centre England (ADRC-E), University College London. This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
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