Many people begin drinking alcohol during adolescence or young adulthood.
This is often due to peer pressure and the perception that alcohol consumption at this age is both normal and socially acceptable—despite the fact that it is illegal to consume until a person is 21 years old. Other influences, such as family history, the presence of a mental health disorder, and use of other substances play important roles in the development of alcohol abuse. Although underage drinking is often glorified in pop culture and it is treated as the norm, alcohol consumption during this developmental period can have serious repercussions for young adults, particularly in relation to brain structure and functioning.
The adverse effects of alcohol consumption are not limited to those under the age of 21. Young adults in their twenties are subjected to many of the same risks, as the brain is still developing during this time. Years of research shows that alcohol consumption can adversely affect the Central Nervous System (CNS), and heavy drinking during adolescence can impact brain function, even if the individual is otherwise physically healthy. Family history and co-occurring disorders can also influence the extent to which alcohol affects brain development and function.
Although there are many known risks, the extent to which alcohol impacts brain development in adolescents and young adults is still widely studied due to the predominance of heavy drinking in this age group. For example, in one 2003 survey, 36 percent of young adults between the ages of 19 and 28 reported consuming five or more drinks in a row within a two week period. Another survey conducted in 2003 revealed that seven percent of young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 met criteria that would classify them as alcohol-dependent. These statistics show that a large percentage of the young adult population is at risk for alcohol-related impairment in brain development and function.
Alcohol and the Adolescent Brain
Consuming alcohol while young can impact several areas of functioning in the brain as well as its overall physical structure. The extent of the harm caused by alcohol consumption varies in severity, but some risk factors can make an individual more at risk for impairment. The areas affected include:
- Neuropsychological performance: One of the most commonly examined aspects of brain function studied in relation to alcohol consumption is neuropsychological performance. This category includes memory, attention, abstract reasoning, planning, and goal-directed behavior. Many studies suggest that heavy alcohol consumption as a young adult can have long-term adverse effects on these important functions. Studies found that adolescents who were alcohol dependent underperformed on verbal and nonverbal memory tests compared to adolescents who had no history of alcohol or drug use. Those who experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms tended to perform the worst.
- Brain structure: Studies have also examined the effects of alcohol consumption on the physical development of the brain. During adolescence and young adulthood, the brain undergoes many structural changes, and studies show that many abnormalities that develop in the brain during this period are directly related to alcohol consumption. Comparing the brains of adolescents who use alcohol to those who do not, subtle differences in white matter and the hippocampus appear. The hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory formation. Heavy alcohol consumption reduces the size of this part of the brain, resulting in a loss of function. The quantity of white matter loss in the brain has been linked to the duration of alcohol use and the volume of consumption.
- Physiologic brain function: The brain’s response time is also impaired by heavy alcohol consumption. Researchers used a technique that measured the amount of oxygen in a person’s blood, which directly correlates to the brain’s ability to perform nerve cell activity. Higher levels of alcohol consumption resulted in lower levels of oxygen in the blood. Lower levels of oxygen in the blood caused decreased response times in testing, which indicated reduced brain activity. Research from this study shows that a lack of adequate oxygenated blood resulted in poor performance in tasks.
- Sensitivity to alcohol: As young adults brains mature, alcohol use can disrupt the process. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, is still developing during adolescence, meaning young adults do not have the ability to fully control impulsive behaviors. This results in poor judgment and decision-making related to alcohol consumption. Additionally, young adult brains are more sensitive to alcohol because they are not yet fully formed. Heavy alcohol consumption may cause some to experience an intensified positive response to alcohol use, resulting in a reinforcing effect.
Other Factors in Alcohol-Related Impairment
There are other factors that impact the level of alcohol-related impairment an individual may experience. These factors are often related to biological differences, patterns of abuse, and other behaviors. They include:
- Family history: One of the biggest influences in the development of alcohol dependency is genetic predisposition. Much like other psychiatric disorders, alcohol dependency tends to run in families, and family history may make a person more likely to develop alcoholism.
- Gender differences: Many studies show that women are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than men. Women tend to experience the effects of alcohol more dramatically, and subsequently the consequences of consumption, even with lower levels of intake than men.
- Age of first use: The effects of heavy drinking also depend on when a person first began consuming alcohol. The earlier a person begins abusing the alcohol, the higher degree of impairment observed.
- Patterns of use: Frequency of use as well as the overall amount consumed also impact the way alcohol impairs brain development. Moderate drinking appears to be less damaging than heavy drinking, although both can cause withdrawal symptoms and negative side effects. Behaviors such as binge drinking and daily drinking had the most detrimental effects on brain function.
- Use of other drugs: Heavy drinking on its own is damaging to the brain, but coupled with other illicit substances, symptoms of impairment are exacerbated. Drug use in conjunction with alcohol consumption results in worsened cognitive ability.
- Co-occurring disorders: Young adults who abuse alcohol are at a higher risk for developing mental health disorders. Underage alcohol consumption appears to be linked to aggression and antisocial behaviors. Conversely, adolescents who exhibit these behavioral issues are at a higher risk for developing alcohol dependencies.
Reducing the Risk of Alcohol Dependency
It is nearly impossible for young adults to avoid being exposed to underage drinking and drug use, especially in college environments. Peer pressure will be a challenge that nearly every young adult faces at some point, and many underestimate how influential it can be. But there are ways young adults can protect themselves from negative influences and maintain sobriety, while still enjoying the college experience.
- Build a support system: Having a network of sober peers is one of the most effective ways to avoid the pressure to drink. Even if your college does not have a formal support group for sober students on campus, there are plenty of other young adults that share the same mentality.
- Prepare before it happens: Peer pressure will undoubtedly rise at some point, so it is important to prepare before it happens. Some ways to avoid peer pressure include offering to be the designated driver, hanging out in environments that do not serve alcohol, or coming prepared with a way out. While honesty is the best policy, having a white lie ready for unrelenting peer pressure can make it easier to cope. Whether you choose to say you have to study, go to work, or have family in town, if it removes peer pressure, it is a good thing.
- Find sober ways to have fun: Although many that that drinking and partying is the best way to celebrate, there are other fun activities you can participate in that do not put you at risk. Going to a concert, going out to dinner, or attending a sporting event are fun ways to celebrate successes. You can always host your own barbecue or party without serving alcohol and still have a great time.
- Treat yourself: Spend your time and energy on activities or items that make you feel happy. If you have had your eye on a new gadget or some clothing, buy it for yourself. You can always pamper yourself with a spa day or go on an adventure, such as going on a boat ride or exploring a nearby city.