The legal drinking age in the United States is 21-years-old. This can seem to be a very odd number to some people, but there are reasons behind why drinking before the age of 21 is dangerous to one’s health. By the time a person is 18 they have likely stopped growing, they are considered an adult, they can vote, drive, move out or drop out of school if they want. But they cannot legally buy or consume alcohol. This is because their brains have not finished developing until they are in their twenties. Of course, adolescents and teenagers often find ways around the age barrier, researchers from Finland have released a study showing just how damaging alcohol is to developing brains.
“The maturation of the brain is still ongoing in adolescence, and especially the frontal areas and the cingulate cortex develop until the twenties. Our findings strongly indicate that heavy alcohol use may disrupt this maturation process,” explained Noora Heikinen, author of the study.
Certain areas of the brain are responsible for certain things. There is an area devoted to hormone regulation, an area that only deals with speech. And there is an area of the brain that is responsible for impulse control. This area is called the cingulate cortex. When adolescents or teenagers consume heavy amounts of alcohol before their brain stops developing, they are damaging this part of the brain.
A malfunctioning, or inhibited cingulate cortex may lead to increasing one’s chances of developing an alcohol dependency later on in life. This is explained by MRIs that were taken in the study.
Researchers took images of groups of people who were between the ages of 13 and 18. One group admitted to heavy consumption of alcohol, while the other group abstained from alcohol. Those that consumed a lot of alcohol had a smaller volume of cingulate cortex.
Researchers also found that alcohol also seems to reduce the volume of gray matter in the insula. This would account for a decreased sensitivity to the negative consequences of alcohol. Hangovers or personal problems due to alcohol use may not resonate heavily with these type of people, also increasing the likelihood of alcohol abuse in the future.
One of the many dangerous new trends involving substance abuse among adolescents and young adults includes mixing alcohol and energy drinks that contain caffeine. This may not seem like that big of a deal at first, but new information reveals the effects are more severe than some might think. Researchers at Purdue University conducted a study that showed mixing alcohol and caffeinated beverages can alter the makeup of the developing brain.
Causing damage to a growing neural center has long lasting effects, the researchers also concluded that these adolescents and teenagers are more likely to develop problems with how they deal with rewarding substances as adults. This means that drug use or alcohol use may be a bit more difficult for them to stop or abstain from because their brains have been altered to demand more.
The latest study looked at the effects of drinks on adolescent mice. When the mice were given caffeine and alcohol combinations, researchers were able to observe that the brains of the mice reacted in the same way as when they were given cocaine. This link provided more insight into the dangers of these drink combinations. As the trials went on, the researchers were able to see an increase in certain brain proteins that indicate long-term changes to the neurochemistry of the brain.
“It seems like two substances together push them over a limit that causes changes in their behavior and changes the neurochemistry in their brains. We’re clearly seeing effects of the combined drinks that we would not see if drinking one or the other,” explained Richard van Rijn, an assistant professor at Purdue University.
Alcohol and caffeine combinations are a trend that have observable physical complications. And teenagers are prone to following trends. And while consuming these types of beverages does not ensure that addiction will take place, it is becoming more clear that consumption is likely to lead toward brain alterations that could have more severe effects down the road.
Each year the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) releases the results of the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in September during National Recovery Month. Among the annual tracking of substance abuse and related behavioral health information, the ongoing survey finds patterns in usage statistics that help give not just a snapshot of consumption, but also help predict trends in drug and alcohol abuse.
The latest survey found some mixed results. Predictably, there was a rise in marijuana usage, given the legalization for adults in several states. However, one positive note was that alcohol consumption among adolescents decreased over the previous year. More specifically, past-month drinking among teens aged 12 t0 17 fell from 17.6 percent in 2002 to 11.5 percent by 2014.
Overall underage drinking is down over the past decade, but there was little change from the previous year when looking at binge drinking and heavy drinking rates. Some believe that the total usage statistics remain generally equal year after year, but the trends in the substances change. While plausible, this doesn’t negate the fact that less young people abusing alcohol equals an improvement in our society.