Teenagers and young adults are still growing and changing. Although the physical body might seem mature or almost grown, the brain continues to develop until an individual reaches roughly 20 years old. Up until that age, certain areas of the brain continue to grow, change and develop. Drinking alcohol before the brain is fully developed can have an impact on that growth that carries forward into adulthood.
Immediate Impact On the Brain
Drinking heavily can have an immediate impact on the brain. Although the physical signs of alcohol abuse are obvious, such as slurred speech or difficulty walking in a straight line, it is only the beginning of the effects.
The cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain that evaluates information from the senses, shows immediate signs of difficulty after alcohol impairment. The brain is not able to recognize or evaluate sensory data clearly. That can result in injuries that are overlooked, difficulty seeing or changes to hearing.
The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that stores memories, is also impacted by drinking alcohol. It can become challenging to remember data that was just presented. If a teenager or young adult drinks heavily, then it can result in a complete lack of memory for that period of time.
Overall, the entire brain is immediately impacted by alcohol consumption. It causes memory loss, impaired abilities and potential health risks. Despite the obvious impact on the body, the brain’s role in alcohol-related activities and behaviors can be overlooked in favor of the physical and behavioral responses.
Long-Term Memory Loss
When teenagers and young adults drink large amounts of alcohol for an extended period of time, the memory center of the brain is impacted. By the time an adolescent reaches adulthood and the brain is fully developed, the alcohol has already caused enough damage that the memory loss is a long-term problem.
The brain is no longer able to store information as effectively as it did before alcohol abuse. Adult memory loss occurs and the individual will struggle with memory. Short-term memory is particularly affected by alcohol abuse in youth. Even as adults, it will be hard to recall information that was recently presented to the individual.
Continued alcohol abuse and alcoholism can result in acute memory loss that impacts every area of the memory. The memories are lost to the blackouts, which get worse over time if drinking is continued.
Difficulty Focusing and Concentrating
Memory loss is not the only challenge associated with alcohol abuse during the teen years. Some young adults are discovering that they are struggling with concentration and focus after abusing alcohol for an extended period of time since childhood.
It becomes hard for the brain to focus on any topic or idea for an extended period of time. The area of the brain that controls planning, thinking and decision making is impacted by chronic alcohol abuse. In the short-term, the lack of concentration and focus is displayed with rash and reckless behaviors as well as the difficulty coordinating the body.
Over the long-term, the difficulty in focusing and concentrating impacts work habits, the ability to keep up a conversation without changing the topic and ultimately displays symptoms that are similar to attention deficit disorder. The damage to the brain causes impairment in the ability to keep up with information mentally.
Reduced Impulse Control
The impact of alcohol abuse shows acute signs of problems in the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes are the part of the brain that develops last and it is not fully developed until after the teen years. On average, the frontal lobes are fully developed at age 20.
Drinking alcohol before the frontal lobes are fully developed will have a long-term impact on the development of that area of the brain. Since it is the area of the brain that controls impulses and reckless behavior, it means that teenagers who drink alcohol are more likely to engage in risky, reckless and dangerous behavior than those who do not drink early in life.
Early drinking damages the frontal lobes of the brain. The overall development is impacted and damage accumulates over time. The result is that an individual will lack impulse control or will have a lower-than-average ability to control behaviors and impulses.
High Risk of Developing Severe Reactions
Although drinking at a young age does not necessarily mean that a teenager will develop severe challenges or that the brain will change dramatically, certain situations can lead to severe damage to the brain. Binge drinking can increase the risk factors for developing severe brain damage from alcohol.
Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome can occur when the brain is not getting enough thiamine. Alcoholism can result in a low level of thiamine, which puts an individual at risk of developing the brain condition. When it is left untreated, the condition can lead to death. Even after treatment, Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome can cause severe memory problems, psychosis and an inability to learn.
When an individual begins drinking early and develops alcoholism, the risk of Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome increases. Although the condition develops as a result of dangerously low thiamine levels, it is usually caused by excessive and persistent alcohol abuse.
Factors That Increase Risks
Although early drinking can result in a higher risk of developing alcoholism and abnormalities in brain development, there are certain factors that increase the risks dramatically. A single drink before the brain is fully developed is not likely to have a long-term impact on the brain. Continued use and abuse of alcohol before the brain is fully developed will have short-term and long-term effects on the brain’s development.
Factors that increase risk of developing problems with the brain include:
- The amount of alcohol a young person drinks at one time
- The number of years that the alcohol is abused
- The age of the young individual when alcohol was first explored and abused
- Original health factors and the health of the brain before drinking alcohol
- The exposure to alcohol before birth
- The development of alcoholism before adulthood
The risk factors increase when a child drank a first alcoholic beverage at a much younger age than average or if a child was exposed to alcohol before birth. Even if a child is not born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a single exposure to alcohol before birth can mean that a teenager has a higher risk of developing problems with alcohol later in life.
Although the risk factors provide general guidelines, each teenager and child is different, so the exact impact of alcohol abuse can vary. In some young individuals, it might mean that the child is more reckless than average while other children will develop severe health and coordination problems for the same amount of alcohol abuse.
Understand The Problem
Early alcohol use impacts the brain and the body. Even a single drink before the brain is fully developed can have an impact on the mind by impairing judgment and causing short-term memory loss. When a child continues to use or abuse alcohol, the risk of developing severe memory loss, reckless behavior and other health risks is increased. Not drinking while the brain is still developing is the only way to avoid any alcohol related damage or impact on the brain’s natural development.