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How Teenage Drinking Impacts Brain Development



According to a 2015 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15.4% of Pennsylvania high-school students had consumed five or more alcoholic drinks in one day during the previous month.

“Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance for adolescents,” says Dr. Hazel Guinto-Ocampo, MD, chief of pediatric emergency services at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, PA. Its popularity likely stems from its low cost and ready availability. According to Dr. Guinto-Ocampo, teens “gravitate to drinks with a higher alcohol concentration” than beer or wine so they can get drunk faster.

While adolescents metabolize alcohol in the same manner as adults, younger drinkers may be able to consume higher quantities of alcohol than adults because they are less susceptible to drowsiness, loss of motor coordination and hangovers, says Elana Dobrowolski, MSW, LCSW, licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor at Meridian Counseling Services in Cherry Hill, NJ. As a result, teens may engage in binge drinking.

One troubling consequence: The earlier people start to drink alcohol, the more likely they are to become addicted, says Dr. Krishna Wood White, MD, chief of adolescent medicine at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, teens who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcoholism later in life than those who begin drinking at age 21.

Brain development

The brain continues to develop until age 25. Two areas of the brain are still developing during the teen years, says Dr. Heidi Weinroth, MD, an attending pediatrician for Cooper University Health Care who practices medicine in Moorestown, NJ. The hippocampus affects memory and the ability to learn new material, and the frontal lobe controls judgment and decision making.

“Alcohol changes the development of the brain, just like any drug use,” says Dobrowolski. It impacts the parts of the brain that control memory, focus, concentration and executive functioning, she says.

What brain changes look like

“Changes in school performance are one of the biggest things to watch for,” says Dr. Guinto-Ocampo. Because some kids routinely struggle to keep up with school work, parents should look for a sudden change in school performance, she says.

Teen drinking causes behavioral changes, agrees Dobrowolski. In addition to disrupted school performance, these changes may include a loss of interest in activities the teen normally enjoyed, changes in friends, getting into arguments or fights and having accidents.

Parents should look for psychological and physical symptoms like sudden mood changes, irritability, agitation, difficulty with focus, lethargy, changes in sleep and appetite, shakes or tremors (which are signs of withdrawal) and bloodshot eyes.

Additional symptoms may include difficulty getting up in the morning and being sick frequently. “Kids get stomach bugs, but they shouldn’t be vomiting on a regular basis,” says Dr. Guinto-Ocampo.

Advice for parents

Dr. Weinroth advises parents to make it clear to their kids that although they see adults drinking, it’s not okay for them to do the same. “Teens may look like adults, but they’re not,” she says. “Stress to kids that their brains are still developing in important areas.”

Many parents mistakenly think it’s okay to let their kids drink alcohol under supervision. “No drinking, supervised or otherwise,” stresses Dr. White.

Parents should talk to their kids about alcohol early. “You will have a greater impact on shaping their attitudes and behaviors before they start,” says Dobrowolski. Set clear rules and expectations during childhood around drug and alcohol use, she advises.

Finally, avoid being hypocritical about alcohol use, especially if you are an adult social drinker, says Dr. Guinto-Ocampo. Tell kids: Don’t binge drink.

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids

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