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A Toxic Mixture: Alcohol and Adolescents

Every day, about 4,700 youth ages 15 and younger drink alcohol for the first time. By middle school, one out of five youth has consumed alcohol, and by high school, two out of three has ingested the substance.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that, compared to youth who don’t drink, youth who begin drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to become alcohol dependent. Also youth who drink are more likely to engage in a dangerous pattern of drinking known as binge drinking.

About Binge Drinking?

According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), for adults binge drinking is the alcoholic consumption of four or more drinks for females and five or more drinks for males, within about a 2-hour span, that raises the blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 percent. For youth, binge drinking occurs when boys ages 9 to 13 or girls under the age of 17, drink three drinks in one sitting. For boys ages 14 to 15, binging is consuming four drinks in one sitting.

How Prevalent is Binge Drinking?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol alone is responsible for 88,000 deaths, and approximately 4,400 of those deaths are young people. Youth between the ages of 12 and 20 are responsible for 11 percent of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. The vast majority of that consumption (about 9 out of 10 drinks) is in the form of binge drinking. While youth may not drink often, when they do, it’s a lot at once. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development refers to underage binge drinking as a “major public health and social concern.”

Although binge drinking is a problem with young people, research is beginning to show a decline in youth drinking patterns. In 2016, the Monitoring the Future Survey reported underage drinking significantly decreased between 2006 and 2015. According to the survey, drinking among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders was at an all-time low since the survey’s inception in the 1970’s.

One major shortcoming of the study was it did not take into account college students who binge. According to the NIAAA, 60 percent of college students ages 18 to 22 reported drinking alcohol in the past month, and nearly two out of three engaged in binge drinking during that same time span. Binge drinking is still a problem for college students.

What Are the Consequences of Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking comes with a number of consequences. For starters, it impairs judgement and leads to more risk-taking behaviors. Those behaviors may come in the form of promiscuity, taking other drugs, driving under the influence, or suicidal behaviors. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that binge drinking is associated with early sexual activity, resulting in higher rates of teen pregnancy. Not only are teens putting themselves at risk for sexual consequences, but they are also making poor judgements about driving. The AAP reports that a third of all alcohol-related fatal auto accidents involve 15- to 20 year-olds, and one in five teen drivers involved in a fatal car accident had alcohol in their bloodstream.

The AAP reports that a third of all alcohol-related fatal auto accidents involve 15- to 20 year-olds, and one in five teen drivers involved in a fatal car accident had alcohol in their bloodstream.-Raychelle Lohmann

Aside from impaired judgement, studies of MRI scans of the brains of teens who drank heavily showed damaged nerve tissue compared to those who were not heavy drinkers. Studies have also shown alcohol can cause long-term damage to an adolescent’s memory, coordination, and movement. In an article in the journal of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, investigators gave an amount of alcohol, equivalent to the blood-alcohol levels modeled by a youth who binges, to adolescent rats. Later, when the rats were older, scientists attached electrical equipment to the rat’s hippocampus, a region of the brain that controls memory and learning. They discovered that not only did the nerve cells communicate abnormally, but their appearance also changed in shape. One of the study’s key findings was that repeated alcohol exposure during the teen years can alter the hippocampus.

Not only can binge drinking affect brain development, but according to a study from Loyola University, it may also affect the brains of their future offspring. Research shows that teenage binge drinking by either parent can result in changing the neurological health of later generations. Now that’s something to think about…

In Closing…

Compared to other drugs, alcohol is an easy and accessible drug for youth to get their hands on.  Teens engaging in binge drinking are not only putting themselves at risk, they are placing others in jeopardy.  Drunk driving accidents, homicides, suicides and other injuries have all been associated with youth alcohol consumption.

The key to curbing adolescent binge drinking is systemic drug prevention programs that raise awareness and educate youth and their parents about the dangers associated with underage drinking and binge drinking.



Images Courtesy of iStock

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