A study by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health suggests there is reason to be concerned that young adults who regularly consume energy drinks could be at risk for future substance use disorders.
The study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, tracked young adults over a five-year period (ages 21-25). Among its findings: There is evidence that individuals who regularly consumed highly caffeinated energy drinks and sustained that consumption over time were significantly more likely to engage in nonmedical use of prescription stimulants, use cocaine and be at risk for alcohol use disorder at age 25.
Participants were recruited for the study while enrolled in college, and were surveyed at regular intervals to track changes in various health and risk-taking behaviors. More than half of the 1,099 study participants (51.4%) fell into a group with a “persistent trajectory,” meaning they sustained a consistent level of energy drink consumption over time.
The 17.4% of participants in the “intermediate trajectory” group were also at an increased risk for nonmedical use of prescription stimulants or cocaine use relative to those in the “non-use trajectory,” who comprised 20.6% of the participants. Those in the non-use group or those whose consumption steadily decreased over time were not at higher risk for any substance use measures tested in the study.
Amelia Arria, PhD, director of the university’s Center on Young Adult Health and Development and the lead researcher on the study, says the research controlled for other potentially contributing factors, such as a predilection to risk-taking, other caffeine consumption and prior substance use, in order to single out the effects of energy drink consumption.
Arria says further longitudinal research on the outcomes of energy drink use is needed, as is additional research on energy drink usage patterns among young adults. Also, while this study focused on energy drink consumption potentially leading to substance use disorders, future studies could explore the risks of energy drinks for those in recovery, Arria says.
“If a person already has a substance use problem and is in recovery, recovery is best defined as abstinence from all psychoactive substances,” Arria says. “The extent to which energy drink use may increase the risk of relapse is unknown at this point, but given these study findings, one would hypothesize that a person who uses energy drinks would be more at risk for relapse. We don’t know, but we would like to investigate that.”