Based on a national survey of high school students by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 73% had had at least one drink of alcohol in their lifetime and 42% had had at least one drink during the past 30 days. This rate increases to above 52% by the time students are seniors in high school.
Not only are teens, especially girls, drinking earlier, they are drinking more and more often. Teens tend to drink more than adults, about five drinks on a single occasion, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, enough to risk brain function, at the least, and alcohol poisoning.
A look at your brain development
The human brain develops in stages and is not fully developed until well into our 20’s. The brain develops from back to front. Physical activity in the Cerebellum is first, and the Prefrontal Cortex develops last, not fully maturing until about age 25.
During adolescence (between 13 and 19 years of age), the parts of the brain devoted to emotion, reasoning, impulse control, learning and memory – including the Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex – undergo major development.
Ironically, the time when these important changes are taking place, is when teens are most likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, which has been shown to disrupt this development.
Look below for links to learn more about teen brain development.
Your brain on alcohol
Because the teen brain is not fully developed, it responds differently to alcohol than an adult (over 25) brain does. Mainly, a majority of teens are missing a vital “warning system”, meaning they cannot tell how intoxicated they are, so they keep drinking.1 Since the lack of symptoms and warning system means they don’t know if they have had too much to drink, they are also unable to tell they shouldn’t perform a particular act, such as jumping from a rooftop, taking a pill, or, you guessed it, driving.
Another immediate danger of alcohol is blacking out, or worse, passing out. Findings have found that blackouts – a lack of memory for events that occur during a night of heavy drinking without a loss of consciousness – are frequent among teens who drink heavily. More dangerous still is passing out. Since a teen may not get the same signals that they are drunk and it’s time to stop, they could actually drink themselves to death. Passing out is not “sleeping it off” for a teen. Once a teen has had enough alcohol to pass out, they are in serious danger. They have drank so much, they may have actually put their brain to sleep, with the risk of never waking up.
Additionally, the brains of teens who get drunk on a regular basis, say a 6-pack every weekend, are different from the brains of teens who don’t use alcohol. The brains of teens who get drunk regularly have less brain activity and function than those who do not drink. And, this impairment can last up to several months after the teen has stopped drinking.2 In studies, the Hippocampus (area involved in learning and memory) is significantly smaller (up to 10%) in teens who get drunk frequently. These teens have trouble learning and remembering new skills and information.
This disruption in development makes it harder for teens to cope with social situation and normal pressures of life and may cause a teen to continue using, only making things worse.
Alcohol behind the wheel
Alcohol has a profound effect on driving skills. Because of its depressant effects, drivers can misjudge their capabilities. Some of the effects of alcohol that affect driving include:
- reaction time – slow reflexes can decrease the ability to react swiftly to situations
- vision – eye muscles function more slowly. Eye movement and perception are altered, possibly resulting in blurred vision. Night vision and color perception are also impaired.
- tracking – the ability to judge the car’s position on the road, the location of other vehicles, center line, road signs, etc., can be adversely affected.
- concentration – attention to driving may decrease and/or drowsiness may occur
- comprehension – the depressant effect of alcohol hinders the ability to make rational decisions
- coordination – the mechanics of driving can be affected by reduced eye/hand/foot coordination.
- If alcohol is used in conjunction with other drugs (legal or illegal), the effects of both substances can be increased–a potentially deadly situation.
When young drivers drink and drive they are five times more likely to crash than someone over 21 years of age. Another factor that increases the likelihood of teen crashes is the impact of passengers in the car. Teens are 20 times more likely to be involved in a crash involving alcohol while carrying passengers than more mature drivers.
Read more about the danger of driving while intoxicated and what you can do about it>
Learn more about the teenage brain>
1 Swartzwelder and White, Duke
2 Susan Tapert, UCSD
3 M.D. DeBellis, Duke