Alcohol harms the brain in teen years –– before and after that, too – . Health Blog

If we'd only paid attention to advertising, it might seem like alcohol – a beer or a glass of wine, a shot of fiery booze or a fancy cocktail – was just meant to bring people together and make them happy. Drink responsibly, winking the ads without ever explaining the toll that frequent or excessive alcohol consumption takes, especially at certain stages of life. Because alcohol doesn't just get us drunk, impair our judgment, and hurt our liver: it can have many other negative effects on our bodies, including effects on the brain.

In a recent editorial in The BMJ, a trio of scientists pointed out that there are three stages in life when the brain goes through major changes and is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Two of these periods are at the beginning and at the end of life. When pregnant women drink alcohol, it can damage the developing brain of the fetus and lead to physical problems, learning difficulties, and behavior problems. If people over 65 years of age drink alcohol, it can lead to deterioration in brain function that occurs as we age.

The third period is adolescence. During these years of transition between childhood and adulthood, the brain grows and changes in many important ways that are critical to the success of this transition. When teenagers and young adults drink alcohol, it can disrupt the process of brain development in a way that affects the rest of their lives.

Alcohol use among teenagers and young adults

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is the most commonly used substance among young people in the United States. Although the rate of alcohol and binge drinking has declined in recent decades, national surveys show that one in five adolescents and young adults has been drinking alcohol in the past 30 days and one in ten reports binge drinking. The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that more than a quarter of students drank alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey, and one in seven reported binge drinking during the same period.

That's a lot of teenagers who could change their brains – and their lives – forever.

The following can and should be done by parents of teenagers:

  • Talk to your teenagers about alcohol and its effects – everyone. Make sure they have the facts.
  • Have strict rules about alcohol consumption and consequences if those rules are violated. Yes, it's normal for teens to experiment, but if you tolerate going to parties with alcohol, drinking excessively, or driving while drinking, it can literally ruin your child's life – or end it.
  • Get to know the parents of your teen's friends and strive to share responsibility for everyone's safety.
  • Set a good example. Drink responsibly, just like these ads promote.

For more advice on talking to your teen and strategies for preventing alcohol use and abuse, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website.

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