According to statistics given by NIH, over 50% of teens have had at least one drink by the time they reach 15 years of age. By age 18, 70% of teenagers have had at least one drink.
Underage drinking is a grave problem that we face today. Drinking is detrimental to health as alcohol increases the risk of several physical ailments and also hampers one's social and emotional development. Those who start drinking from an early age are naturally the most affected by alcohol use.
The chances of their turning to alcoholism and alcohol or any other form of addiction are higher in comparison to non-drinkers. Apart from its immediate effects on the body, alcohol deteriorates overall health, thus having long-term negative consequences on one's well-being. In trying to 'fit in' or in an attempt to escape from problems, teenagers start drinking. It soon becomes a habit and eventually leads to alcohol dependence. Over time, it develops into an addiction that is difficult to overcome. The negative effects of alcohol start reflecting on their performance in academics and efficiency at work. Drinking starts hampering their relationships and disrupts their social life. It has long-term negative effects on their health. In the following sections of this WellnessKeen article, we look at the negative consequences of underage drinking.
Effects on the Brain
✦ Recent research has shown that underage drinking has a negative effect on brain development. During the adolescent years, new neural pathways are created through synaptic refinement and myelination. This means, adolescence is the time when the information processing speed and efficiency of the brain improves. Consumption of alcohol hampers this and has a negative effect on the physiological growth and development of the brain.
✦ Underage drinking has an adverse effect on the development of memory. It has been found that youngsters dependent on alcohol have poor short-term memory. It has a negative effect on one's thinking and planning skills and it hampers the abilities for spatial operations and memory. Alcohol has damaging effects on the frontal regions of the brain.
✦ Studies have shown that alcohol leads to changes in the structure and size of the hippocampus. It was found to be smaller in adolescents who were alcohol abusers. Excessive drinking can cause the brain to shrink in size.
✦ Underage drinking can lead to attention disorders and difficulty in concentrating. Binge drinking may cause learning disabilities.
✦ A neurological study has found that RASGRF-2 is the risk gene for alcohol abuse. It controls the way alcohol stimulates the brain to release dopamine. Variations in this gene are associated with teenage drinking. Individuals with a variation of this gene were found to have drunk more frequently at the age of 16 than those without any variation on this gene.
✦ In a study led by neuroscientist Susan Tapert of the University of California, San Diego, brain scans of teenagers who drank were compared with those of non-drinkers. The nerve tissue of drinkers was found to have been damaged, translating into diminished attention span and reduced comprehension abilities. Tapert also showed that binge drinking among teenagers leads to deterioration in the quality of the brain's white matter.
✦ Less motor control, slow movements, and confusion are among the other effects of alcohol consumption in adolescents. It has negative effects on speech and vision. Alcohol slows down the nervous system, in turn affecting the body's overall functioning.
Effects on Physical Health
✦ Adolescent alcohol abusers experience changes in appetite and sleep disturbances.
✦ Excessive drinking may show immediate effects like vomiting, drowsiness, and fatigue.
✦ It's a well-known fact that alcohol damages the liver. In case of underage drinking, the liver damage starts early in life, thus increasing the risk of death due to liver disease.
✦ Alcohol affects blood pressure, leads to irregular heartbeats, and may even lead to stroke. These effects apply to adults as well, but they are more devastating in case of underage drinkers since the damage starts early in life.
✦ In the long run, alcohol weakens the immune system, making the drinker more susceptible to diseases.
✦ Excessive drinking increases the risk of developing cancers.
✦ Statistics show that a majority of social and behavioral problems in college students are the consequences of drinking.
✦ Rapes and sexual abuse in campus are often found to be the result of alcohol consumption by the youths. Much of the violence on campus is alcohol-related.
✦ The risk of physical and sexual assault is more in underage drinkers. Teenaged drinkers may engage in unprotected sex. 90% of the college rape cases are found to involve alcohol.
✦ According to a survey conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health, individuals who had drunk before the age of 13, were 2 times more likely to engage in unplanned sex and more than twice as likely to have unprotected sex.
✦ Risky sexual behavior is also attributed to consumption of alcohol.
✦ The consequences of drinking are graver in people who begin to drink from their teen years.
✦ Underage drinkers engage in violent and risky behavior. They are found to be more aggressive. They engage in robberies and other criminal activities.
✦ Risky behavior includes rash driving that leads to car accidents. Their young age makes them more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. Thus, the chances of fatal accidents due to drinking and driving are higher in case of youngsters.
✦ Indulging in risky tasks after drinking or drunk driving can lead to unintentional deaths and injuries. Underage drinking is found to be the culprit in many accidents caused due to loss of motor control after alcohol consumption.
✦ In a majority of fatal vehicle crashes, the drivers are found to have drunk while driving. And surveys indicate that in a majority of cases they are aged below 20.
✦ Alcohol has been found to be responsible for homicides in those under the age of 21.
✦ Drinking causes stress and depression, which may lead to suicidal tendencies.
✦ Succumbing to peer pressure or to deal with frustrations, teenagers consume alcohol. Its consumption affects the release of chemicals in the brain that fight stress and regulate mood. Thus, contrary to the notion that drinkers have about alcohol, it can actually cause mood disorders and depression.
✦ Teenagers who drink are at a greater risk of developing mood disorders, anxiety, and depression during adulthood.
✦ Drinking in teenagers is detrimental to their relationships with friends and parents.
✦ Due to hangovers after drinking, school and college students miss classes and lag behind in school work.
✦ A study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that as the rates of alcohol use by students aged 12 to 17 increase, their grade point averages decrease. Also, middle school students who drink score less in reading and math tests.
✦ A report from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that high school dropouts were more likely to drink. It was found that about 42% seniors who did not complete high school drank alcohol and about one-third of them were binge drinkers.
✦ According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 40 percent of all academic problems and 28 percent of all dropouts in college are alcohol-related.
✦ Poor performance and low college grades are often the result of excessive consumption of alcohol.
✦ Reduced concentration, attention span, and diminished cognitive abilities impact their performance in school or college.
✦ Due to the physical and psychological effects of alcohol, drinkers show poor attendance in school or college, further worsening their performance in academics and other activities.
Alcohol Use Disorders
✦ Studies have shown that around 40% of those who start drinking before the age of fifteen, take to alcoholism later in life. Drinking during the teenage years increases their chances of developing alcohol abuse or dependence on alcohol in adult life.
✦ Youngsters who drink are at a higher risk of alcohol addiction.
✦ Underage drinkers are at a greater risk of death from alcohol poisoning. Young alcoholics are highly vulnerable to alcohol use disorders.
✦ Underage drinking has side effects like illicit use of drugs and tobacco.
✦ Alcohol abuse was found to be prominent in those who began to drink during their teenage. A majority of the adults who drink, are found to have started drinking before the age of twenty-one. This shows that underage drinking has higher chances of turning into alcohol dependence or addiction.
✦ Most alcohol addicts are seen to have started drinking from an early age.
✦ People who first use alcohol before 15 years of age are five times more likely to be alcohol abusers than those who first use alcohol at or after 21 years of age.
With its immediate as well as long-term effects, alcohol can ruin lives. Underage drinking affects not just the individual, but also his family and the society as a whole. It is a serious public health issue in the United States as alcohol is one of the most widely used substances of abuse by young Americans. Underage drinking is a problem that needs immediate attention. We need to find effective ways to discourage the youth from the unhealthy habit of alcohol consumption.