Alcohol use in adolescence

Drinking by teenagers is not a new phenomenon. Experimenting with alcohol and other substances is very common among adolescents and adults have long warned their kids about the risks to health and safety that go along with these behaviours.

Most of us have talked with our kids and likely remember our own parents talking to us about the dangers of underage drinking – usually risk of accidents, injuries, other dangerous behaviours, or alcohol poisoning.

The Center for Disease Control reports that alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the US, more than tobacco and illicit drugs and is responsible for more than 4,300 annual deaths among underage youth.

People aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the US. More than 90% is consumed by binge drinking. On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers.

In 2010, there were approximately 189,000 emergency rooms visits by persons under age 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol.

The 2013 Youth Risk Behaviour Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days 35% drank some amount of alcohol, 21% binge drank, 10% drove after drinking alcohol and 22% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.

New research is now also showing how heavy drinking in adolescence affects brain development.

A study recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry used MRI to examine the effects of alcohol use on brain development in teens.

Researchers examined the gray and white matter volume trajectories in 134 adolescents over eight years. The kids studied were healthy with no co-existing psychiatric diagnoses and living in affluent areas of San Diego.

Over the course of the study, 75 subjects became heavy drinkers and 59 remained light or non-drinkers. Their brains were scanned several times between the ages of 12 and 24 and results showed clear differences between heavy and light or non-drinkers over age.

Heavy drinkers showed a trajectory of increasing frontal and temporal damage and loss of myelination in the brain.

Although this study looked only at healthy teens, it is thought effects could be more pronounced in individuals with co-occurring mental health conditions or other complications. More study could further quantify this theory.

These findings give one more reason to encourage teenagers to avoid underage drinking.

Since the brain is not finished developing until the mid-20s though, this advice also extends to young adults who may be of legal age for drinking but would still be wise to be moderate in their use of alcohol.

Safe drinking guidelines typically suggest women consume no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven drinks in a week. For men, low risk drinking means no more than four drinks in a day or 14 in a week.

Men and women have different recommendations because of the way alcohol is dispersed in the body. If a man and woman of the same weight drank the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol content would likely be higher.

If you are consistently drinking more than this, you may be at increased risk for developing an alcohol use problem or other health risks associated with heavy drinking.

If drinking is a problem for you or your children, speak to your doctor about it. Help is available.


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