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What Are the Population Groups Most Vulnerable to Addiction?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 28, 2023

Table of Contents

In the United States, researchers have gone to great lengths to find traits in those who are caught up in addiction or substance abuse. The theory is that if they could identify the risk factors for addiction, great progress could be made in prevention and addiction treatment. They looked at age, ethnicity, environmental factors, gender, and employment status to try to identify risk factors for population groups most vulnerable to addiction. The study was run in 2013 and 2014 and produced some interesting findings.

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Populations at Risk for Substance Abuse

There are multi-faceted substance abuse risks based on a diverse set of populations. The following categories highlight drug abuse statistics based on populous groups:

Adolescents Aged 12-17

  • The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an organization that gathers drug abuse statistics reports that in 2014, approximately 5 percent of the American adolescent population suffered from a substance use disorder; this equates to 1.3 million teens or 1 in every 12.

  • Almost 700,000 American youths between ages 12 and 17 battled an alcohol abuse problem in 2013, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

  • An estimated 867,000 adolescents suffered from an illicit drug use disorder in 2014, which was a decline from previous years, per NSDUH.

  • Individuals who tried marijuana or alcohol before the age of 15 were almost four times as likely to suffer from a marijuana use disorder as an adult than those who waited until after age 18 to try these substances, according to data published in the 2013 NSDUH.

Young Adults Aged 18-25

  • About one out of every six American young adults (between the ages of 18 and 25) battled a substance use disorder in 2014, NSDUH This represents the highest percentage out of any age group at 16.3 percent.

  • Heroin addiction among young adults between 18 and 25 years old has doubled in the past 10 years, AARP.

  • In college students studied in 2010, the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) found that alcohol was the number one substance this group received specialized treatment for, at 72 percent of those admitted to public substance abuse programs did so for an alcohol use disorder (marijuana was second at 55.7 percent and prescription drugs were third at 31.6 percent).

Those Over the Age of 25

  • Approximately 14.5 million adults aged 26 or older struggled with a substance use disorder in 2014, NSUDH.

  • College graduates aged 26 or older battled drug addiction at lower rates than those who did not graduate from high school or those who didn’t finish college, the 2013 NSDUH.

Elderly Individuals

  • An estimated 15 percent of elderly individuals may suffer from problems with substance abuse and addiction, Today’s Geriatric Medicine.

  • Over 3 percent of the older adult population may struggle with an alcohol use disorder.

  • This generation takes more prescription drugs than younger ones, has slower metabolisms, potentially suffers from social isolation and ageism, may struggle with many medical issues, and therefore may be at high risk for prescription drug abuse and dependence, according to Psychiatric Times.

  • Two-thirds of the population over the age of 65 who struggle with alcohol addiction, battled an alcohol use disorder at a younger age and carried it with them as they aged.

  • Between 21 and 66 percent of elderly individuals battling a substance use disorder also suffer from a co-occurring mental health disorder.

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Men vs. Women

  • In 2013, adult men in the United States struggled with an alcohol use disorder at rates double those of women, 10.8 million as compared to 5.8 million, NIAAA.

  • For boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 17, both genders battle substance use disorders at similar rates, making it the only age bracket that men did not significantly outweigh women, the 2013 NSDUH.

  • Close to 70 percent of treatment admissions for substance abuse in 2010 were male, TEDS.

  • Men, especially non-Hispanic White men and adults aged 18-39 were the most likely to be involved with injection drug use, such as heroin.

  • Men may be more likely to abuse illicit drugs than women, but women may be just as prone to addiction as men when they do abuse them, NIDA.

Ethnicity or Race Considerations

  • The 2013 NSDUH reports that American Indians and Alaska natives had the highest rate of substance abuse and dependence at 14.3 percent.

  • Approximately 11.3 percent of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders suffered from substance abuse and dependence in 2013, NSDUH.

  • According to NSDUH, Hispanics and whites suffered from drug or alcohol abuse and dependence at similar rates in 2013, around 8.5 percent, while about 7.4 percent of African Americans struggled with it.

  • Asians suffered from substance abuse and dependency the least at rates around 4.5 percent, per the 2013 NSDUH.

  • A study of undergraduate college students published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse found that whites and Hispanics were more likely to have issues surrounding drug abuse than their Asian and African American counterparts.

Criminal Justice or Employment Status

  • Almost twice as many people who are unemployed struggle with addiction than those who are full-time workers, CNN Money reports; around 17 percent of the unemployed and 9 percent of the employed population struggled with a substance use disorder in 2012.

  • About half of the population of American prisons and jails suffer from addiction, according to NCAAD.

  • Around three-quarters of individuals in a state prison or local jail who suffer from a mental illness also struggle with substance abuse, and the opposite is also true.

Population Groups Most Vulnerable to Addiction

Overall, there was no single commonality or group of commonalities to help pinpoint specific risk factors for addiction. However, there are certain risk factors for addiction that have emerged:

  • Genetic predisposition

  • Certain brain characteristics that can make someone more vulnerable to addictive substances than the average person

  • Psychological factors  (e.g., stress, personality traits like high impulsivity or sensation seeking, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality, and other psychiatric disorders)

  • Environmental influences (e.g., exposure to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or trauma, substance use or addiction in the family or among peers, access to an addictive substance; exposure to popular culture references that encourage substance use)

  • Starting alcohol, nicotine or other drug use at an early age

What to Do if You Are Struggling with Substance Abuse

If you or a loved one is dealing with substance abuse, including drug abuse or alcohol abuse, there are resources and treatment programs that can help with both addiction and overlapping mental health problems.

If you want to seek treatment for an addiction to prescription medications, illicit drugs, or alcoholism, there are resources to help you. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a an online treatment locator tool available to help all those seeking help for substance abuse.


Who is most at risk for substance abuse?

Individuals with a family history of substance abuse, those with mental health disorders, and those who have experienced trauma are at a higher risk for substance abuse.

How many people are affected by addiction in the US?

In 2022 studies, approximately 20.2 million Americans aged 12 or older were reported to have had a substance use disorder in the last year.

What age groups are most affected by addiction?

Addiction can affect individuals of all age groups, but young adults (18-25 years old) tend to have higher rates of substance use disorders.

How many Americans struggle with addiction?

The number of Americans struggling with addiction can vary, but it’s estimated that millions are affected. However, the exact figure may change over time due to factors such as evolving societal attitudes and improved data collection methods.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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