The Impact of Underage Drinking on Long-Term Mental and Physical Health

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Physical Health

Teens are at a time in their lives when they want to push limits and experiment. Unfortunately, this experimentation can involve underage drinking.

Many factors influence a teen’s decision to drink, including peer pressure, media glamorizing alcohol use and stress, such as concerns about grades or puberty changes. Regardless of the reason, teens who drink will experience long-term consequences that can affect their mental and physical health.

1. Decreased Cognitive Function

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s natural development, leading to impaired memory and learning. It also impairs judgment and impulse control. It can negatively impact academic performance, causing teens to lose out on college acceptance changes and job opportunities. It can also increase the risk of accidents like car crashes, homicides and suicides.

Adolescent drinking is associated with decreased cognitive functioning on a variety of neuropsychological assessments, including visuospatial function, working memory and psychomotor speed. These impairments persist into adulthood.

Longitudinal studies of human adolescent heavy drinkers have shown that their alcohol use is associated with altered neurodevelopmental trajectories, including accelerated decreases in gray matter volume and attenuated increases in white matter volume in the frontal and temporal lobes, and cingulate, corpus callosum and pons, when compared to non-drinking adolescents.

2. Decreased Physical Activity

Teens experiment with drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons. For example, they may want to assert their independence, feel more carefree or escape from pressures or boredom. But it’s important for teens to recognize that alcohol, the most widely used substance by adolescents, carries serious health risks.

The teenage brain is still developing and heavy drinking can cause lasting damage. This can lead to poor impulse control, which could trigger risky sexual behaviors or episodes of violence. Raising the legal drinking age can help reduce underage drinking, as can limiting the number of bars and restaurants that sell alcohol, strict enforcement of commercial host liability laws, and comprehensive community-based programs. The most effective strategies, however, include public education and prevention activities focused on both parents and youth.

3. Increased Risk of Alcohol-Related Illnesses

Because teenagers’ bodies can’t process alcohol as efficiently as adults, they can become drunk more quickly and are at a greater risk for alcohol poisoning. Mixing drinks, playing drinking games and natural teenage impulsiveness can all lead to binge drinking which can cause vomiting, confusion, loss of coordination and trouble breathing.

Alcohol abuse can also disrupt normal growth and development, damage the liver, endocrine system and bone health. These effects may not be immediately apparent but can remain dormant for years to come.

Whether out of curiosity, rebellion or the desire to prove their maturity, teens often begin to drink to fit in and get noticed by friends. Parents can reduce the likelihood of underage drinking by setting clear rules against it and consistently enforcing them.

4. Decreased Self-Esteem

Underage drinking puts teens at a higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, sexually aggressive behavior and alcohol poisoning. This can also have serious long-term effects on a teen’s physical health, including permanent damage to the liver, pancreas and lungs.

The developing brains of teenagers are especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol – impacting memory, decision-making and speech. This is why teens are more likely to take risks, seek thrills and engage in risky behaviors while under the influence.

Parental involvement and monitoring has been found to reduce a teen’s likelihood of heavy episodic alcohol use. Self-esteem is inversely related to resilience and directly forecasts lower levels of alcohol use, while peer alcohol norms and personal risk perceptions predict increased consumption.

5. Increased Risk of Suicide

Alcohol consumption can have many negative effects, including disrupting normal growth and sexual development. It can also cause lasting damage to the brain. Those problems, plus the fact that underage drinking often leads to other illicit drugs, can lead to a lifetime of health problems.

Teens start drinking for many reasons: to fit in with their peers, to look older and more independent, or to relieve stress. They may even copy their parents’ alcohol consumption habits.

Many factors influence underage drinking, including peer pressure, media images glamorizing alcohol excess and parental modeling. Regardless of the specifics, teens who drink are at higher risk for legal problems such as drunk driving accidents and homicides/violence, and emotional problems like depression or suicidal thoughts. Thousands of young people are killed each year from these alcohol-related injuries.

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