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What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use on Developing Brains?

Numerous studies emphasize the danger of adolescent and teen drinking. The brain is in its primal stage of development until about the age of 25, making this population particularly vulnerable to the consequences of alcohol. The earlier an individual starts drinking, the more likely they are to develop an addiction and health complications later in life.

Why Is Teenage Drinking Dangerous?

Alcohol is one of the most commonly used substances among teens in the United States, largely because it is one of the most accessible. Many parents – or friends’ parents – have liquor cabinets that teens can easily access.

Teen drinking is dangerous because it can impair brain functioning in areas associated with decision-making, memory, and impulse control. Other consequences of teen drinking include drunk driving, violent or aggressive behavior, and an increased risk of developing an addiction. Teens who drink are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as having unprotected sex, which puts them at an increased risk of contracting STDs.

The consequences that may result from excessive drinking during the teen years can lead to long-term health consequences in adulthood, which is why early intervention from parents is so critical.

The Science of Alcohol on Adolescent Brains

Adolescence is a critical period of mental and physical development. One of the brain areas that develops the slowest is the frontal lobe, which controls abstract thoughts, impulses, and judgment. As this part of the brain develops last, teens are more vulnerable than other populations to make decisions without consideration of the potential long-term consequences. This isn’t because teens lack intelligence; it means they lack the foresight and experience that adults have.

Children in different stages of adolescence experience significant differences in brain development. The older a teen gets, the more the frontal lobe matures, which should improve decision-making skills and decrease impulsiveness. Until then, teens are particularly vulnerable to being influenced by their friends, social media, or society. All of these things can influence whether a teen decides to drink, how much they may consume, and how often.

For teens with mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, alcohol can worsen symptoms. Once the “buzzed” feeling from alcohol wears off, the inevitable crash can result in even more profound feelings of sadness or anxiousness. In some cases, excessive drinking can create symptoms of depression and anxiety, even if no symptoms had previously existed.

The Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Teenage Brains

Teenagers and adults alike may experience a range of short-term effects from alcohol use. Factors that contribute to the short-term effects of alcohol include bodily makeup, weight, and sex. Teen girls tend to feel the effects of alcohol more quickly compared to teen boys, and tend to feel effects from consuming lesser quantities of alcohol. This is because girls tend to be smaller and weigh more than teen boys. When teens consume more than four or five drinks in under two hours, this can qualify as binge drinking, which can be incredibly problematic for their health.

Immediate effects of alcohol on teens affect communication of the brain’s pathways. This can result in cognitive impairment such as loss of inhibitions, decreased decision-making skills, impaired motor skills, and poor coordination. Driving in this state is especially dangerous. If your teen has friends of driving age, make sure they know that they could still be drunk after a drink or two even if they may not perceive themselves to be. You may want to discuss a plan with your teen where they can call you to pick them up if their friends end up drinking or they can’t drive home.

The Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Teenage Brains

The long-term effects of alcohol are dependent on several factors, including:

  • How frequently a teen is drinking, such as every day, once a week, or once a year
  • The quantity of alcohol that is being consumed
  • The duration of time spent drinking (one hour vs. six hours)

Long-term drinking problems can result in damaged organs, including the liver and heart. Drinking can also weaken the immune system, which can make an individual more susceptible to illness and disease. Other long-term effects can include sleep disruption and digestive problems. Finally, teenage drinking can inevitably lead to the development of substance use disorders, such as addiction, later in life.

How Can Parents Prevent Teens From Drinking?

Talk to your teen about any temptations they face at school or among their friends to drink. Set up boundaries with social media so you can monitor what they may be searching for or viewing on the internet. Know where your teen is going and who they will be with. It is important to open up lines of communication with your teen and offer them a safe place to talk about substance use so that, if they do start to struggle, you can quickly connect them with treatment resources. 

Alcoholism is problematic for adults, but it’s especially damaging to teenagers whose brains are still in development. The effects of alcohol on teens can be detrimental if substance use is not managed as quickly as possible. Fortunately, there is Clearfork Academy: a substance abuse treatment facility for adolescent boys and girls. Our licensed, compassionate staff has helped hundreds of teens conquer the damaging effects of alcohol addiction and substance abuse. We are passionate about teaching teens how to live healthy and sober lives. Our treatments include inpatient and outpatient programs, summer programs, detoxes, and more. If you suspect your teen has a drinking problem, it is vital that you connect them with treatment resources as quickly as possible to avoid long-term consequences on their developing brain. To learn about our treatment programs, give us a call today at (817) 259-2597.  

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