Adults in their early 20s who regularly consume energy drinks are much more likely to use illegal substances and indulge in excessive alcohol drinking later in life, new research shows.

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Young adults who consume energy drinks regularly are likelier to use drugs and overindulge in alcohol consumption, a new study shows.

Energy drinks are an increasingly popular beverage among teenagers and young adults in the United States. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, in the adult population, energy drink consumption is most common among males aged between 18 and 34.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not yet regulated energy drinks and are continuously researching their effects on health. Some adverse events owed to energy drink consumption reported by the FDA include flushing, headaches, abnormal heart rates, nausea, lethargy, loss of consciousness, and, in the most severe cases, death.

A new study led by Dr. Amelia Arria, from the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland in College Park, has now uncovered strong links between the regular consumption of energy drinks among young adults and their risk of developing substance use disorders.

Dr. Arria and her colleagues conducted their study on a population of 1,099 young adults. The participants were recruited in their first year of college, at which point most of them were age 18, but the study itself was conducted when the participants were aged between 21 and 25 years.

The researchers' findings were published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

'Energy drink users at risk of substance use'

Previous research published by Dr. Arria had already shown a correlation between energy drink consumption and alcohol dependence, as well as the use of nonmedical prescription stimulants (NPS), or illegal drugs.

However, this is the first cohort study to take into account potential correlations between energy drink consumption and substance use, differentiating between distinct patterns of energy drink ingestion.

These different patterns of energy drink consumption were referred to as "trajectories," and the researchers identified four: "persistent trajectory," "non-use trajectory," "intermediate trajectory," and "desisting trajectory."

The trajectory groups were defined according to how many energy drinks the participants were likely to have consumed year by year during the first 4 years of the study. The substance use outcomes at age 25 were then compared among the four groups.

Of all participants, 51.4 percent had a persistent trajectory of energy drink consumption, 20.6 percent were non-users, 17.4 percent had an intermediate trajectory, and 10.6 percent were desisting, or cutting down on energy drinks over time.

The researchers found that participants with a persistent trajectory of energy drink consumption were at a much higher risk of using NPS and stimulant drugs, and being diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder at age 25.

"The results suggest that energy drink users might be at heightened risk for other substance use, particularly stimulants," says Dr. Arria.

Results remained consistent even after the researchers had controlled for possible confounding factors, such as demographic information, sensation-seeking intent, consumption of other caffeinated beverages, and substance use habits at age 21.

Participants who reported an intermediate level of energy drink consumption were also at a much higher risk of using cocaine and NPS, as well as developing alcohol use disorder, at age 25 than their peers with non-use and desisting trajectories.

Further research encouraged

The team acknowledges that the biological factors behind both frequent energy drink consumption and a predisposition for substance use remain unclear for the time being, but they insist that the correlation between those two behaviors warrants further research.

Dr. Arria argues that specialists should now aim to discover whether teenagers consuming energy drinks are at a similar risk of being diagnosed with a substance use disorder in adulthood. This danger may well be present; around one third of U.S. adolescents aged 12 to 17 drink this type of beverage.

"Future studies should focus on younger people, because we know that they too are regularly consuming energy drinks. We want to know whether or not adolescents are similarly at risk for future substance use."

Dr. Amelia Arria