Underage drinking can "program" the brain for alcoholism
Another grave concern is the greatly increased risk of alcoholism for teen drinkers. Research shows kids who begin drinking before age 15 have a 40 percent chance of becoming alcohol-dependent. In contrast, a person who waits until the legal age of 21 to start drinking only has a 7 percent chance of becoming an alcoholic. 4 (Note: Some people are genetically predisposed to alcoholism. Their brains react with greater intensity to the alcohol-produced dopamine rush. If a person has a relative who is an alcoholic, he or she is at much higher risk; and to be safe from alcoholism, should probably not drink at all.
Here's why: The brain is hard-wired to reward positive actions (those that benefit the human race or contribute to the survival of the species) with feelings of pleasure so we want to repeat them. These can range from an intense emotional "high" to a happy sense of satisfaction from doing something well or performing a kind deed. We remember pleasure from dopamine, a "feel-good" brain chemical, or neurotransmitter, which associates the pleasure to the thing we enjoyed.
Alcohol tricks the brain's pleasure-reward system by stimulating the production of dopamine. It thus creates feelings of pleasure from a harmful chemical instead of a real experience. Because the teen brain produces an abundance of dopamine (compared to an adult brain), it can rapidly go from liking, to wanting, to needing alcohol, thus programming it for alcoholism. 6
Alcohol can also damage the brain's ability to sense pleasure from normal, healthy things and experiences, leaving a young person feeling "flat" about activities he or she previously enjoyed. 7 For heavy teen drinkers, nothing else seems as fun anymore. Because the pleasure-reward system is becoming damaged by heavy drinking, after a while it takes more and more alcohol to create the same amount of pleasure, resulting in addiction. There are about 16 million alcoholics in the United States and about one-fourth are teens.
Alcoholism is a terrible fate for a young person. They become irritable and moody, as the craving for the next drink is a constant nagging presence. Getting the next drink becomes more important than grades, sports, or other activities they used to enjoy. Often, they fail to realize their full potential, and they feel trapped. It is also a terrible fate for their parents who often end up bailing the kid out of trouble-like paying their rent or tending grandchildren the addicted parent is unable to care for. Society is also burdened as it picks up the social clean-up costs of welfare, drunk driving, child neglect, spouse abuse, etc.
Underage drinking, with its high risk of alcohol addiction, is a lose-lose proposition for everyone concerned-except the alcohol companies who profit at the kids' expense.
In addition to alcoholism, teens who drink are far more likely to try illegal drugs. In fact, research shows that 67 percent of teens who drink before the age of 15 will go on to use illegal drugs. 8 They are 22 times more likely to use marijuana, and 50 times more likely to use cocaine. Further, 95 percent of meth users began drinking before the age of 15.
Underage drinking disrupts hormones and organs
In both males and females, puberty is associated with marked hormonal changes, including increases in the sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone. These hormones, in turn, increase production of other hormones and growth factors vital for normal organ development.
Alcohol used prior to or during puberty may upset the critical hormone balance necessary for development of organs, muscles, and bones. Studies in animals also show that consuming alcohol during puberty adversely affects the maturation of the reproductive system. ( Alcohol and female puberty: the role of intraovarian systems, Dees WL, Srivastava VK, Hiney JK.)
Underage drinking linked to mental health problems
Not only do teens who use alcohol often progress to addictive behavior later in life, according to an article entitled "Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, published in August 2005 from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, "They are at a higher risk for developing mental illnesses such as depression, suicide, and psychoticism as adults."
In an August 2002 Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the following statistics were given: 1.) Among 12- to 17- year-olds who were current drinkers, 31 percent exhibited extreme levels of psychological distress and 39% exhibited serious behavioral problems. 2.) 12- to 16- year-old girls who were current drinkers were four times more likely than their non-drinking peers to suffer depression. 3.) Suicide attempts among heavy-drinking adolescents were three to four times greater than among non-drinkers. 4.) Among eighth grade girls who drink heavily, 37 percent report attempting suicide, whereas 11 percent of girls who do not drink report attempting suicide.
Underage drinking can lead to a host of other problems
Underage drinking isn't a harmless rite of passage. Alcohol use among children is strongly correlated with violence, poor academic performance, promiscuity, arrest and many other dangers. In fact, alcohol use by teens is one of the strongest predictors of teen injury, fighting, academic problems, truancy, unprotected sexual activity, unwanted sexual advances, illegal activity and other illicit drug use.
Underage drinking can kill
Alcohol poisoning from underage drinking is more likely to kill young people than all other illicit drugs combined. 13 Here's why: Unlike adults, most kids' brains haven't yet developed the internal "cut-off" switch that makes them go to sleep or pass out from drinking too much alcohol. They can easily consume dangerous amounts of alcohol before they realize the harm. The resulting alcohol poisoning can cause difficulty breathing, unconsciousness and death. It is important to note that the lethal dose of alcohol is just a tiny bit more than the passing-out dose. If a young person ever passes out from too much drinking, 911 should be called for immediate medical attention.
In addition to alcohol poisoning, traffic accidents are the #1 killer of teens; and more than one-third of teen traffic deaths are alcohol-related. Even non-drinking teens are at risk if they get in a car with an alcohol-impaired driver. Some parents may question setting a no-alcohol rule because they drank as a teen and feel they "turned out fine." New research shows teens today begin earlier and drink more than adults at a sitting, putting them at far greater risk for addiction and brain damage. All parents need to set firm no-alcohol boundaries.
Teens aren't prepared to deal with the risks of alcohol
Some parents may question setting a no-alcohol rule because they drank as a teen and feel they "turned out fine." New research shows teens today begin earlier and drink more than adults at a sitting, putting them at far greater risk for addiction and brain damage. All parents need to set firm no-alcohol boundaries.
The brain areas that encourage impulsivity and risk-taking develop early in a teen, while areas that improve self-control and inhibit impulsive behavior don't develop until the very late teens or early 20s. Teens need parental help to stay alcohol-free.
The good news is, teen alcohol use is not an inevitable rite of passage. Research shows that addiction begins (and can be prevented) in adolescence: "A child who gets through age 21 without smoking, abusing alcohol or using illegal drugs is virtually certain never to do so." (Joseph Califano, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2006) Parents can make a powerful difference in their child's decision to remain alcohol-free by learning and applying the research-proven skills of BONDING, BOUNDARIES, and MONITORING.