Alcohol is one of the most widely accepted and used drugs globally today. Whether it is glamorized in movies by our favorite stars, or plastered on billboards and commercials popularizing its existence, it’s hard to dispute how prevalent drinking is in American culture. At a young age we are very impressionable, and when we see our favorite movie stars drinking a cold one, or our favorite basketball players posting their glasses of wine on social media, it’s hard to escape the pull it has on kids and even adults.
In 2015, a National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) study found that 86.4 percent of people age 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lives. Another 70.1 percent reported that they drank alcohol in the past year, and 56.0 percent reported they drank in the past month. While these figures only reflect small portions of alcohol consumed, there is another portion of the statistics that engaged in binge drinking. According to the survey, 26.9 percent of people age 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month, whereas another 7.0 percent admitted to heavy alcohol use.
Annual deaths in the United States from drinking are staggering and account for the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. It is estimated that 88,000 people die annually in the United States due to excessive alcohol use. This translates to 62,000 men and 26,000 women, which in 2010, cost the United States $249 billion in economic burden. It’s difficult to put a cost on lives, but the burden families have felt around the country due to accidents from drunk drivers will never reflect in a statistic.
In 2015, 623,000 adolescents ages 12-17 were interviewed. This consisted of 298,000 males and 325,000 females. The figures showed 2.3 percent of the males admitted to an alcohol use disorder (AUD), and 2.7 percent of females the same. As much as parents don’t want to think about it, their children could be experimenting with alcohol during high school and college. These are decisions younger minds simply cannot process. It is easy to watch your idol consume alcohol and think it’s cool, but the reality is alcohol is detrimental to developing brains. There is a reason for the age 21-and-over drinking law.
Alcohol works by acting on nerve cells and disrupting the communication between nerve cells and other important cells in the body. The substance alters the actions between two of the major neurotransmitters in our brains. Neurotransmitters are referred to as chemical messages, and these enable the nerve cells to talk with each other and to other cells in the body. Alcohol then suppresses the activities on specific pathways, which makes the drinker sluggish. This is referred to as intoxication.
Research has proven that alcohol can damage a developing brain, but it hasn’t been made clear how much alcohol is required to do this. The reason? It’s not possible to conduct studies on children and give them alcohol. There is enough information, however, to know what areas of the brain are damaged and to recommend no one under age 21 should partake in the consumption of alcohol. Studies show that delaying the initiation for drinking as long as possible can result in less damage to the brain.
Many parts of the brain can be affected by drinking during teen years, but there are two parts of the brain specifically that are sensitive during this period.
Our hippocampus is responsible for two vital functions—memory and learning. There has been a link between heavy alcohol use among adolescent and a 10 percent reduction in the size of the hippocampus. It was also shown that the hippocampus is very sensitive to alcohol at this stage in life. Alcohol is poisonous to nerve cells and can cause them to be either damaged, or worse, destroyed.
Our prefrontal lobes function for planning, decision making, impulse control, judgment, and language. This is the area that develops the most during our teenage years, and it is often noted that teenagers and young adults will have lapses in judgment and poor impulse control. This is why a teenager is more likely to speed in a car, hence the higher cost of insurance for younger drivers.
Research has shown that young adults who engage in heavy drinking also have smaller prefrontal lobes than those who did not drink at all. The research on this topic is still developing, but there is a correlation between physical changes in the brain and evidence of impaired problem-solving.
Alcohol can affect our perception of reality and ability to make the right decision. This is evident especially in young adults who have less experience with problem-solving and decision-making. In a time where they are seeking acceptance from their peers, they may make the wrong decision to impress someone. Drinking alcohol can have severe consequences that could be fatal.
While youth is a time of self-discovery and learning, it’s necessary to encourage the children to ask questions that are hard to answer. We have to make them understand, to the best of their ability, that a single decision they make can affect the rest of their lives. We must also drive home that peers should never force them into anything. It will not make you less “cool” if you decide not to drink, and that’s the message we need our children and young adults to grasp and understand.
That leads us into the next point of why young adults consume alcohol in the first place. There are a variety of reasons that could lead them to drink, but peer pressure is No. 1. It is also common for a teen to experiment because it’s readily available. A friend’s parents went out of town and left their liquor cabinet unlocked is a very common scenario that young people may find themselves in, but drinking alcohol under these circumstances can have deadly consequences.
Another reason young adults drink is to escape and self-medicate. It’s difficult in this transition between childhood and adulthood to find a healthy outlet for what they’re going through. This is a very emotional time for a child, and it comes as no surprise that this is a reason for drinking.
Boredom is another reason. People who have trouble being alone try to find ways to keep themselves occupied. Alcohol fills an internal void and will provide common ground with other teens in the same situation.
Unfortunately, at a younger age, kids lack confidence and drinking alcohol lowers their inhibitions. This can make the worst dancer feel like the best and even give a person the confidence to kiss a crush.
Alcohol abuse as we have read can have fatal outcomes. It is just not just dangerous to a developing brain, but due to the lack of problem-solving skills, it could make them engage in dangerous behaviors. This is why if someone has to drink they should wait until the designated age of 21.
Conley, M. (2011, July 14). 14-Year-Old Dies of Possible Alcohol Poisoning at Her Own Sleepover. from https://abcnews.go.com/Health/14-year-dies-alcohol-poisoning-slumber-party/story?id=14065038
Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
Drinking Levels Defined. (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP). Excessive Alcohol Use. (June 16, 2019) from https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/alcohol.htm
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcoholism and the Brain: An Overview. (2003) Oscar–Berman, M. Ph.D., Marinkovic, K. Ph.D. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/125-133.htm
NPR. Teen Drinking May Cause Irreversible Brain Damage. (January 25, 2010) from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122765890