Just How Does Drinking Affect the Teenage Brain?
What every parent should know about adolescents and alcohol
July 30, 2021
Studies at McLean Hospital and elsewhere have shown that alcohol affects the brains of adolescents in profound and dangerous ways. During the teenage and early adult years, the brain is still developing, making it more vulnerable to alcohol than the adult brain.
Because of the serious short- and long-term effects of alcohol use and misuse, it is essential that teens, parents, teachers, and health professionals gain a deeper understanding of teenage drinking and brain development, and we must all work together to dispel common misconceptions about teens and alcohol.
Why Is Teenage Drinking Dangerous?
Alcohol is the most commonly used and misused drug among young people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reports that excessive underage drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among individuals each year.
According to the CDC’s 2015 “Youth Risk Behavior Study,” when high school students were asked about their activities during the previous 30 days, 33% said they drank some amount of alcohol, 18% reported binge drinking, and 8% said that they drove after drinking alcohol.
Moreover, more than 90% of the alcohol consumed by young people is in the form of binge drinking.
The CDC defines binge drinking as a drinking pattern that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% or above. Binge drinking means consuming five or more drinks in about two hours for someone who is biologically male, or four or more drinks for someone who is biologically female.
The dangers associated with binge drinking include increased risk of drunk driving, violent behavior, being a victim of sexual assault, transmitted diseases, and long-term alcohol addiction.
Adding to the concerns are studies providing scientific evidence that alcohol significantly impairs learning and memory in teens.
Adults who drink also experience problems. However, learning and memory are considerably more compromised by alcohol in adolescents than in adults. This is because the brain is undergoing important development toward maturity, including improvements in decision-making functions and associated connections with the memory center, which lasts throughout the teenage years and into a person’s early 20s—the exact period of time that alcohol use, and misuse, begin.