I have this friend, and he was quite the party animal in his early 20s (some might even say he partied like a rockstar). He partied so hard that he regularly used drugs to keep the party going and feel something in his otherwise apathetic sphere. He approached me the other day — a changed, predominantly sober (and exceedingly handsome) man — worrying about the consequences of his past drug abuse. He wanted to know if his previous toying with fun chemicals would impede his future, quite literally. That is, he wanted to know if he was going to croak sooner than he would have otherwise because he did drugs in his 20s.
I had no idea what to tell him, but I felt compelled to find some kind of answer. So, I reached out to a couple of drug abuse specialists to ask them about the lifelong effects of using drugs in your young life, and more specifically, how much shorter your life would hypothetically be if you did drugs in your 20s. The short answer is, nobody really knows. For the long answer, keep on reading.
Before exploring our impending deaths, I should specify that there are tons of drugs out there, each of which have their own set of dangers and negative effects. This article, though, will focus primarily on party drugs, like cocaine and MDMA, because these are extremely common, and a lot of young people use them at some point.
Along those lines, let’s start with cocaine. “Cocaine can pose a number of issues down the line,” says Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer of the American Addiction Centers. “Use has been associated with an increased risk of cancers, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Additionally, the additives — or cutting agents — that are often mixed with cocaine are also cancer-causing. On the list of substances most commonly mixed with illicit drugs like cocaine is phenacetin, a drug that’s been banned by most countries since the 1960s. Phenacetin is known to cause kidney diseases and cancers of the upper urinary tract. In fact, it was the increased incidents of upper urinary tract cancers that caused it to be banned in Australia.”
Therefore, we can safely say that a cocaine habit in your 20s increases your risk of developing cancer down the line. Eighty-seven percent of all cancer victims are older than 50 years of age, so we can also assume that, if you do develop cancer because of your cocaine use, you might still have a good chance of at least living to 50. Although, you also may end up in the other 13 percent. Either way, an increased risk of developing cancer is far from the only negative effect of cocaine.
“Other issues that could be brought on by cocaine use include substantial otolaryngologic, respiratory and cardiovascular problems,” Weinstein says. “Snorting cocaine causes a great deal of damage to the mucus membranes throughout the sinus cavity and can lead to tissue death and septal perforations, causing the nose to collapse. Ingesting cocaine in this manner also damages the upper respiratory tract. If cocaine is smoked, further pulmonary damage is done. The individual will have a higher risk of respiratory infections, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Users can also develop a condition called ‘crack lung,’ or eosinophilic pneumonitis, which makes breathing difficult.”
These lasting symptoms of cocaine use are especially dangerous nowadays, because the coronavirus is a respiratory disease and can certainly exacerbate any already-existing respiratory problems.
Perhaps the most notorious lasting effects of cocaine abuse, though, are heart problems. “Permanently high blood pressure and blood clots that can lead to a stroke, pulmonary embolism or a heart attack are relatively common effects,” Weinstein explains. “Heart attacks are actually the leading cause of death for those who use cocaine.” As many as 10 percent of heart attacks occur before the age of 45, and using cocaine has the potential to lump you into that younger age group.
“Among other risks, such as organ damage and an impaired immune system, cocaine use ages the brain and also increases the risk of developing dementia,” Weinstein continues. “For those at a higher risk of developing dementia, cocaine use can expedite the condition.”
Speaking of the brain, I think we can now safely move on to the longstanding effects of MDMA, which includes ecstasy and molly. “For many, ecstasy is seen as a relatively safe drug, resulting in the combination of stimulant and hallucinogenic properties,” Weinstein explains. “Ecstasy, molly and MDMA have a chemical structure similar to amphetamines and some hallucinogens, and they carry some of those long-term effects.”
While Weinstein explains that pure MDMA rarely results in an overdose or death, “The problem is that ecstasy bought off the street tends to have more additives and other substances, such as methamphetamine, ketamine or bath salts, than pure MDMA itself, so users are vulnerable to a host of short-term and long-term effects based on what the adulterants are.” When you add cutting agents to the mix, you really never know what may or may not happen to your health, long-term or otherwise.
The real worrisome lasting effects of an ecstasy habit, however, are those on the brain. “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter released in the brain that helps regulate social behavior, mood and memory, among other functions,” Weinstein explains. “Because ecstasy enhances the activity of serotonin in nerve cells, it’s believed to deplete the levels of serotonin throughout the brain. When neurotransmission of serotonin is impaired, there are a number of psychological and cognitive impairments that persist for long periods.”
“The most pronounced long-term effects are on verbal and working memory,” Weinstein continues. “The ability to grasp a new task or concept is decreased, aggressive behavior develops, as does increased impulsiveness and confusion. Studies have found these effects on both current and former users of the drug, indicating that there’s no link between the amount taken and the severity of cognitive deficits that later develop.”
But as Ruben Baler of the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out, these lasting effects on the brain — and especially on a developing, young brain — are far from unique to MDMA. “The currency that the brain uses to program itself in response to constant stimulus are the same neurotransmitters that are hijacked by drugs of abuse; any drugs of abuse,” he says. “They all hijack and deter that critical currency that the brain uses to program itself, and it gets distracted. These are neurotransmitters that the brain monitors and calibrates very, very carefully, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood. That process of programming is extremely carefully orchestrated. It’s been orchestrated by evolution for millions of years, and every disruption of that choreography — that very careful process — can have really devastating consequences. This is really what worries us about the use of drugs — any drug in any frequency — during adolescence.”
Weinstein agrees: “The brain typically reaches maturation around the age of 25, so the introduction of any substance — whether it’s alcohol, nicotine, cocaine or ecstasy — will have an increased chance of producing health issues in some capacity later in life,” he says.
To put this in simpler terms, the big suggestion here is that using drugs of abuse, especially in your early 20s, can screw with your brain and impede your ability to make appropriate decisions later in life, which could certainly contribute to an earlier death from other causes.
When we lump all of these lasting effects of early drug use together — an increased cancer risk, potential respiratory and circulatory problems and a good chance that your brain has been at least somewhat dulled — Baler holds that “inter-individual differences” make it “impossible” to say with any certainty how much time doing drugs in your 20s truly takes off your life. “It really depends on the type of drug, specific drug, other things that happen in life, your genetic constitution, whether you drink alcohol, whether you have a pre-existing condition, how you handle stress and what your life circumstances are,” he says. “The inter-individual differences here are huge.”
Due to these differences — along with the constant mystery of what your drugs are cut with — Baler explains that one person could have a history of drug abuse and turn out just fine, whereas another could have the exact same history of drug abuse and quickly end up dead in the gutter. A good example of this is Ozzy Osbourne, who has genes that have actually helped his body survive several addictions — addictions that many, many others would have died from by now.
What Baler is able to tell me regarding the long-term effects of early drug use, however, is that drugs never do you any good. “Even if we consider the range of inter-individual differences, nobody who uses drugs will reach 100 percent of their potential,” he says. “You’ll always be shortchanging your potential.”
Great, so my life is basically over.
Uh, I mean, I better go tell my friend!