Around 3% of the population aged 12 to 15 already exhibits signs of alcoholism, engaging in heavy, uncontrolled drinking. About 10% of older teens, aged 16 to 20, exhibit signs of alcoholism. Kids with alcohol problems in this age group may be hard to detect due to the high rate of alcohol experimentation occurring in this age group. There is also greater social tolerance for heavy alcohol drinking in this age group; many college students report strong social pressure to binge drink regularly.
Poor School Performance
Scientists, educators and parents have long known that alcohol use by teenagers and college students doesn’t improve school performance. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that as alcohol use goes up, grade point averages go down. Non-drinking teenagers tend to score higher on tests than teenagers who drink. Drinkers have poor class attendance, are more likely to cut class and not turn in work, and are more likely to drop out of school.
Learning and Memory Impairment
The impact of alcohol on school performance seems to go far beyond that of motivation and work ethic; it actually impairs the ability of a young person’s brain to learn. During the teenage years the brain is rapidly developing, and subjecting it to regular and large amounts of alcohol during this period of time seems to affect its development, possibly permanently. In particular, heavy alcohol use by teenagers seems to damage the ability of the brain to learn, impairs memory, and reduces verbal skills and visual-spatial cognition.
The teenage years are normally a time during which the brain develops as the child matures and learns skills to cope with adult life. The extreme plasticity of the adolescent brain seems to render it particularly vulnerable to damage from heavy alcohol use. Binge drinking, for example, is very disruptive to the structure of the adolescent brain, and a single episode of binge drinking during adolescence may be enough to cause permanent damage.
Alcohol Use Disorder
Experts talk about a syndrome called Alcohol Use Disorder characterized by deficits in problem solving and working memory. These cognitive deficits are often accompanied by antisocial behavior and blunted emotions associated with abnormalities of a part of the brain called the frontal limbic system. Heavy alcohol use seems to impair the development of this part of the brain, leading to poor self-control and impaired decision making.
Drinking during the teenage years can also increase the risk of alcoholism developing later. Individuals who wait until after age 21 to drink have only a 9% risk of developing a severe alcohol problem, versus 47% of those who begin drinking by age 14. It is possible that exposure to alcohol during the formative teenage years causes neurological pathways of alcoholism to develop.
Is the Damage Permanent?
It is not yet clear if the neurological damage caused by teenage drinking in humans is permanent. Young rats exposed to alcohol exhibit memory and cognitive deficits to a far greater extent than adult rats exposed to alcohol. When these young rats are “rehabbed” and allowed to grow up alcohol-free they continue to display neurological deficits. Some studies in people indicate that adolescents who stop drinking may be able to heal some of the damage done to their memories, cognitive and learning skills.
During the 1970s the severe impact of alcohol on the developing fetal brain was recognized, leading to widespread interventions to stop fetal exposure to alcohol. The current realization that teenage brains are severely affected by alcohol as well, should, hopefully, lead to widespread interventions to stop teenage and college-age drinking. Help is available for teenagers struggling with heavy drinking.