Lawmakers raised the drinking age in the United States from 18 to 21 with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. Before that, the drinking age was different from state to state. The measure was taken to address the issue of drunk driving in young adults. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the new law worked. It lowered drunk driving accidents by about 16% in states that raised the drinking age. Drinking also decreased significantly among people between the ages of 18 and 20. In fact, people between the ages of 20 and 25 also seemed to drink less after the law was passed. 

Still, there is debate over the drinking age. Some argue that people considered adults who can vote and serve in the military should make their own choices when it comes to alcohol. There are advantages and disadvantages to the way alcohol use is regulated and enforced among young adults, but it’s clear that misusing the substance can make a big impact on a young person.

Still, drinking is often seen as a rite of passage among young adults, on and off college campuses. While it has been made illegal, teen drinking is still a significant problem that leads to consequences like substance use disorders, alcohol poisoning, and other health problems. 

How does alcohol affect teens and their developing brains?

How Common Is Teen Drinking?

Drinking is fairly common among high school students. It’s among the most common recreational substances in the United States along with caffeine and nicotine. Its popularity and cultural acceptance contribute to its ease of access among underaged people. The CDC reports that the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 29% of high school students drank alcohol within the past 30 days. The survey also found that 14% binge drank, which means they consumed enough to raise their blood-alcohol levels to 0.08 g/dl or above.

Drinking is even more common among underaged college students. A national survey found that 19% of people between ages 12 and 20 reported drinking, and 11% reported binge drinking. Adult drinking in a community can also increase the chances of drinking among young adults. The CDC reports that a 5% increase in drinking among adults in a community is associated with a 12% increase in the risk of underage drinking. 

Warning Signs of Teen Drinking

Teen drinking may come with several warning signs. In the early stages of an alcohol use problem, the signs may be subtle. However, as problems develop, alcohol use may be more difficult to hide. Alcohol intoxication comes with some fairly obvious physical and behavioral signs, including, slurred speech, memory issues, fatigue, slower reaction time, and poor coordination. Alcohol misuse can also come with other signs like poor performance at school, changes in friend groups, strange sleep schedules, money problems, and legal issues.

In some cases, drinking can be addressed with early intervention, a level of addiction treatment that emphasizes drug education and addressing underlying issues. If a young adult has developed an alcohol dependency or addiction, they may need higher levels of care in addiction treatment like alcohol detox, inpatient treatment, or outpatient treatment. 

If your teen exhibits signs of alcohol poisoning or extreme intoxication, you should call for emergency services immediately. Severe intoxication can cause vomiting, incontinence, loss of consciousness, breathing difficulties, lower body temperature, and a slow heart rate. If a person is experiencing an overdose, roll them on their side, keep their airways unobstructed, and don’t leave them until emergency services arrive. 

Consequences of Underage Drinking

Underage drinking is associated with many direct and indirect consequences. A direct consequence is alcohol poisoning or overdose. High doses of alcohol can lead to a loss of consciousness, slowed breathing, and heart-related emergencies. Alcohol poisoning can cause coma, oxygen deprivation, brain damage, and death, especially if you don’t get medical attention in time. It can also increase your risk of a substance use disorder, which can take over multiple aspects of your life. Early drinking can also interfere with sexual and cognitive development. 

Underage drinking can also contribute to indirect consequences because of your impaired judgment and other alcohol effects. Binge drinking is associated with early pregnancy, STDs, academic problems, social problems, and legal issues. Heavy drinking among adolescents can also increase their risk of being the victim of a crime, assault, or unwanted sexual activity. Many of these issues can follow teens into adulthood, leading to long-lasting physical, psychological, social, and legal issues. 

Alcoholism is often associated with other underlying issues like mental health problems. Alcohol may be used to mask issues like depression, anxiety, or trauma. In many cases, treating a substance use disorder will also mean treating these co-occurring mental health issues. 

How Does Teen Drinking Affect The Brain?

There is still debate over the drinking age. Some argue that it’s only driven underaged drinking underground. Teens may also binge drink and not call for help when someone has a medical emergency for fear of getting in trouble. Raising the drinking age to 21 was intended to help lower the prevalence of drunk driving fatalities among young adults. However, it accomplishes something else too. 

The higher drinking age ideally gives the brain more time to develop before it’s exposed to alcohol. Your brain finishes its development around your mid-20s and early exposure to alcohol can be dangerous. Early drinking has been linked to alcohol use problems later in life. A 2008 study found that 50% of adolescents that were exposed to alcohol or illicit drugs before age 15 had an increased risk of substance use disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, early pregnancy, and crime.

Alcohol has several short term effects on the brain that are related to slowing down activity in the nervous system. In moderate doses, depressants like alcohol can cause feelings of relaxation, anti-anxiety, and physical comfort. In higher doses, it can cause euphoria, depression, impaired motor function, impaired memory, and impaired decision making. Addiction can also cause dangerous long-term side effects in the brain, especially among adolescents. 

Heavy, chronic alcohol use in a developing brain can hinder things like memory and learning, leading to life-long problems. In fact, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that’s associated with memory and learning and long-term heavy alcohol use has shown to reduce the size of the hippocampus by 10% in adolescents. 

During your teen years, something in your brain called myelin goes through a period of increased growth. Myelin works to speed up signals in the brain. Heavy alcohol use during these developmental years can reduce the growth of myelin, leading to slower thinking and other cognitive issues.

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