Many of us fondly remember our college days as a time when we drank a little too much and didn’t study quite enough.
But our boozy nostalgia for days gone by masks a less pleasant truth: Binge drinking is dangerous in the short term, and can have long-term – and possibly permanent –consequences for our physical and emotional well-being.
As today’s college students return to campus, they need to be aware of the harm alcohol abuse can inflict on their young brains, says Linda Richter, director of policy research and analysis at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
“Using alcohol before the brain is more developed can interfere with brain development, permanently impair critical brain functions and heighten the chances of addiction,” she says.
How alcohol abuse harms young brains
Drinking too much is unwise at any age. But it can be especially harmful when you are young, Richter says.
“Young people who drink are at greater risk than adults of experiencing the negative effects,” she says.
The human brain continues to grow and develop until people reach their mid-twenties. As a result, young people are especially vulnerable to the dangers of alcohol, including addiction, Richter says.
Drinking too much alcohol damages regions of the brain responsible for:
- Decision making
- Impulse control
“We now know more about underage drinking than ever before, and we better understand why it’s not at all a harmless rite of passage,” Richter says.
The dangers of alcohol abuse
Most people who develop alcohol addiction start drinking in their teens, Richter says.
“The problem with teens and young adults is that when they drink alcohol, they usually binge drink,” she says.
Binge drinking has been defined in different ways, Richter says. However, it typically means consuming a large amount of alcohol on a single occasion, or within a few hours.
Such behavior is associated with a wide range of dangers, some of which can be life-threatening. They include:
- Unsafe driving and car crashes
- Injuries from falls and burns
- Alcohol poisoning
“Individuals who engage in binge drinking also are more likely to act aggressively, get into fights, (and) commit crimes, including partner violence and sexual assault,” Richter says.
Because alcohol impairs judgment and self-control, binge drinkers often put themselves at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases or unintended pregnancies.
Other common consequences of binge drinking include an increased risk of:
- Anxiety, depression and suicide
- Sleep problems
- Cognitive impairment
- Overweight or obesity
- High blood pressure and diseases, including heart disease, liver disease and cancer
“Underage drinking also is associated with an increased risk of using tobacco or other drugs,” Richter says.
Turning the tide on binge drinking
Once a young person begins to binge drink, it starts a pattern of behavior that can be hard to reverse. Heavy drinkers tend to drink more than they originally intended, and struggle to successfully cut back.
A cultural shift is necessary if society is to win the war on underage drinking, Richter says.
“It will require change on many fronts, especially our culture that glorifies drinking and its effects and pays little attention to all its negative consequences,” she says.
Government and policymakers can play a “huge role” in helping curb underage drinking, but ultimately every person has a stake in solving the problem, Richter says.
Parents can help underage drinkers fight the temptation to drink by:
- Suggesting other activities that are fun and fulfilling
- Addressing mental health problems that lead to excessive drinking
- Seeking professional help for children who are at risk
Finally, education is key, Richter says. She urges parents and young people to turn to resources – such as those offered by the federal government’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – that can help them spot problems and learn where to seek help.
“No one wants to be addicted to alcohol, or have a child experience the consequences of alcohol misuse,” Richter says. “Not knowing the facts can lead to unhealthy choices and decisions.”