To many American youths, drinking and drug use may seem like rites of passage. Experimentation often begins in high school, and college students are notoriously prolific in their partying. Few expect the indulgence of these years to last, assuming adult responsibility will arrive eventually. But is there a time frame in which the excesses of youth are considered acceptable? At what age does excessive consumption indicate a lack of maturity? Certainly, intoxicating substances entail risks at any stage of life, but no one wants to hang on to hard partying too long to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling adulthood.
In this project, we surveyed over 1,000 individuals about their partying origins and when these habits peaked and ended. Our findings reveal the typical trajectory of maturation, as young adults shift from intoxication to moderation. Additionally, we studied individuals who continued heavy drinking and drug use later in life and the emotional effects of their ongoing use. To find out when the party ends for most people, keep reading.
Our findings indicate most individuals first try drinking and drugs during their high school years. Alcohol comes first, with 16 being the average age of introduction. The typical age of first drug use was roughly a year and a half later, and this figure may rise further still as public health researchers have celebrated reduced rates of drug use among American teens in recent years. Respondents reported similar ages for peak drinking and drug use – 22.1 years and 21.5 years, respectively. These ages typically correspond with the final years of college, suggesting use of these substances may intensify with time spent on campus.
Those who tried alcohol earlier in life saw their drinking habits peak at younger ages as well. Our data also suggest men experience peak drinking periods later than their female counterparts. That’s an interesting finding given recent research suggesting a surge in alcohol use among adult American women. Though men still struggle with alcohol abuse more frequently, women are far more likely to develop a drinking problem over the course of their lives than in decades past.
Height of Getting High
During the most intense periods of drug use, how frequently do most people get high? For more than one-fifth of respondents, using drugs was a daily practice – and this cohort first tried drugs at roughly 16 and a half years old, on average. In fact, those who got used five or six days a week during their peak periods of drug consumption also typically began using before they turned 17. Conversely, those who used drugs just one or two days a week at their peak typically started using at 18 or older.
The effects of various drugs on the teenage brain can be unpredictable and depend on many genetic and environmental factors. But our data could indicate that an earlier introduction to drugs elevates the risk of compulsive use. This concern is magnified by recent medical research about teenagers’ cognitive development. During these formative years, the prefrontal cortex is still in a state of flux, making impulse control especially challenging.
Sticking With the Same Crowd?
Can old drinking buddies be lifelong friends once the days of hard partying end? Forty percent of respondents said friends from their peak years of drug and alcohol use were no longer a part of their lives. Those who partied hardest after turning 21 seemed more prone to keep track of such friends, while those who partied hardest before 21 said they were less likely to maintain those friendships.
Though socializing in college can be particularly alcohol-intensive, consumption can remain an integral part of social settings in the years that follow as well. Some who choose to stop or moderate in the post-college years report a period of adjustment to this lifestyle change – which can sometimes include growing apart from old friends. Then again, these figures could speak to a more general decline in friendship across the country: Since 1985, the number of Americans reporting an absence of close friends has tripled.
Partying Hard vs. Happiness
Parties are ostensibly opportunities to celebrate, but our findings suggest drinking and drug use may be more common in the low moments of our lives. Nearly 13 percent of respondents said they were “not happy at all” during their peak partying years, whereas fewer than 5 percent said they felt that way in the present. It’s certainly possible that hard partying creates unhappy times, but the reverse dynamic is more likely. Several studies have demonstrated that those struggling with depression frequently turn to alcohol to cope.
If people are more likely to be happy now than in their days of peak partying, it may be advantageous to put that stage in the past as quickly as possible. Indeed, our findings suggest that the later their drinking and drug use peaked, the more unhappy our respondents were in the present. Indeed, respondents whose alcohol and drug consumption peaked at age 40 or older reported the lowest levels of happiness overall. This finding is quite troubling given the recent rise in alcohol abuse among older Americans.
Reasons for Restraint
What finally prompted respondents to ebb the flow of their alcohol consumption? While most of our respondents simply said they just lost the urge to go out and party (nearly 63 percent), more than 1 in 5 admitted they were tired of making bad decisions when they drank. It’s a glimmer of hope that some are self-aware enough to recognize those negative behaviors and slow down partying as a result, but others aren’t so lucky.
While college years are sometimes approached a more casually and responsibilities are perceived as optional, the adult world isn’t so forgiving. More than 40 percent of our respondents listed their job as the reason they slowed down. More than 5 percent listed weight loss as a reason to stop the hard partying, which recent research suggests is an increasingly common motive for moderation among health-conscious millennials.
When the Party’s Over, Life Goes On
Our results demonstrate a definite trend: Though most individuals indulge in their early 20s, alcohol and drug consumption decline significantly thereafter. While this pattern is pervasive, no single motive explains the shift. For some, a specific event or obligation prompts the intention to party less, while others drift naturally to calmer forms of leisure. Whatever your reasons for practicing greater moderation, we hope you feel empowered to embrace them as you get older. As our findings make clear, heavy drinking and drug use later in life may yield more pain than pleasure.
For those struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, however, choosing a healthier lifestyle can sometimes seem impossible. At ProjectKnow, we strive to let those with substance use disorders know that’s not the case. There’s hope in effective treatment, but you’ll need accurate guidance to find the help you need. Explore our information and resources today to learn how you or someone you love can begin the journey toward recovery.
We surveyed 1,013 people about their initial and peak drug and alcohol consumption. Respondent ages ranged from 18 to 77 with an average age of 35. Five hundred were women, 510 were men, and three did not identify as either gender. Our data collection was achieved through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and attention check questions were provided. The survey was not weighted.
You’re welcome to share this research for noncommercial purposes, but we would appreciate a link back to this page to credit our team fairly for their work. We may party less as we age, but giving credit where it’s due never gets old.